Pelotonia Fellowships Support & Encourage Young Cancer Researchers
Each year, the Pelotonia Fellowship Program allots $2 million to support promising Ohio State students in any discipline or level of scholarship who want to conduct cancer research under the guidance of faculty mentors at the OSUCCC – James.
Since the program began in 2010, it has awarded more than $15 million in fellowships for 476 cancer research projects undertaken by students, including 223 undergraduates, 143 graduates, 104 postdoctoral fellows and six professional students. The program also has provided international research experiences for 21 Ohio undergrads in India and Brazil, and it has brought 14 students from India and Brazil to contribute to cancer research in Ohio State labs.
The fellowships are peer-reviewed and issued by a committee of faculty cancer researchers chaired by Joanna Groden, PhD, of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program at the OSUCCC – James.
On the next two pages are profiles of three Pelotonia fellowship recipients.
Since discovering his passion for medicine and research, Manuel Torres’ life goal has been to “make a real difference for underrepresented cancer patients.”
The Pelotonia Fellowship Program gave him his first opportunity to do that. Working in the lab of David Carbone, MD, PhD, director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at the OSUCCC – James, Torres focused on studying the Brazilian lung cancer population in partnership with the National Cancer Institute of Brazil (NCIB) and Luis Araujo, MD, who leads the NCIB study.
“The Brazilian population has a diverse genetic history that represents a range of people from across the world, making it a great model to study the interaction between genetic ancestry and the incidence of cancer-driving mutations in lung cancer patients,” says Torres, a native of Puerto Rico who earned his undergraduate degree in Molecular Genetics at Ohio State and recently joined Northwestern University’s Medical Scientist Training Program in pursuit of an MD/PhD.
“Understanding how patients with diverse genetic backgrounds are differentially predisposed to cancer after acquiring these mutations could (enable doctors to provide) them and many others with personalized therapies tailored to their genetic history,” Torres says.
His project involved receiving and processing tumor samples from Brazilian patients on a rolling basis at Ohio State. The researchers used DNA sequencing technology to look for correlations between “ancestry-informative genetic markers” and mutations that drive cancer progression in the samples. They hoped to uncover associations that might be used in the clinical setting.
Torres is grateful for the time he spent in Carbone’s lab. “I received exposure to tasks such as grant writing and publishing that will be important later,” he says. “That this exposure came from such talented, driven scientists and physicians was a blessing in itself.”
He hopes eventually to return home and help train the next generation of Puerto Rican scientists—and perhaps someday lead the University of Puerto Rico Comprehensive Cancer Center—but those are long-term dreams. “First, I want to treat the Latino community in the mainland and gain the experience required to achieve my goals.”
As a Team Buckeye rider in Pelotonia, his most memorable moment was just before the start of the event, “when I got to see the uncountable amount of people who were excited to participate in such a good cause. It was inspiring and humbling.”
Luxi Chen’s Pelotonia fellowship project yielded a discovery that could result in new ways to boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.
“We found a novel precursor of natural killer (NK) cells, which are immune cells that can directly target and kill cancer cells,” says Chen, a fourth-year doctoral student who is a native of China but grew up in Canada and San Jose, Calif. She earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at UCLA.
“By studying how this precursor develops into a mature NK cell, we can find new ways to boost our immune system to fight cancer,” she adds, noting that her study focuses on acute myeloid leukemia but could apply to other cancers. “The idea of having a wide range of applications for this knowledge, and of possibly finding cures, is deeply fulfilling, both professionally and personally.”
Chen is mentored on her project by former OSUCCC Director and James CEO Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, who is now at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., but remains her adviser on record. Aharon Freud, MD, PhD, of the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James, is her co-advisor.
Their study resulted in a paper that has been submitted for publication in the journal Immunity with Chen as first author, and Caligiuri and Freud as corresponding authors.
Chen is on track to earn her PhD in 2019. She plans to return to medical school for two years after that to earn her MD. “I would like to become a physician-scientist and pursue a career in hematology/oncology,” she says.
2018 marks Chen’s fifth straight year of participating in Pelotonia with Buckeye Student Riders, a group within the Team Buckeye superpeloton. This year, she chose the route from Columbus to Pickerington. A well-rounded athlete who enjoys outdoor and indoor cycling, swimming, running and tennis, she looks forward to each Pelotonia.
“My favorite part of the ride is hearing the resounding cheers of families, friends and supporters in the middle of an otherwise quiet country road as riders pass by,” Chen says. “This connection between community and rider inspires and encourages my research endeavors.”
Lindsey Brinton, PhD
Lindsey Brinton’s intense curiosity about how things work—and why they sometimes don’t—has fueled her career in cancer research.
“I was always an inquisitive child,” Brinton says. “I have a strong passion for math and science, and a fascination with how the body functions and malfunctions, so I was easily taken in by the challenge of better understanding how cancer works.”
After earning her PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, Brinton came to Ohio State in 2016 to serve as a postdoctoral fellow with Rosa Lapalombella, PhD, John C. Byrd, MD, and James S. Blachly, MD—all members of the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James. Brinton studies the DNA of patients with leukemia, focusing on a gene called BIRC6 that has been found to be different in some patients and thus represents a promising therapeutic target.
With support from her Pelotonia fellowship, Brinton is “testing to see how many of our patients were born with this change and how many acquired it later. I want to understand how this gene contributes to leukemia and how we can use this information to better treat patients.”
Lapalombella is her mentor for this work.
Brinton says her team uses a genomic engineering technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) “to create an endless supply of cells to study that have the same changes as our patients, so we can discover which functions are disrupted. We also test how the cells respond to different chemotherapy drugs, and we find characteristics that we may be able to exploit for new therapies.”
Brinton hopes to one day lead her own laboratory, but for now she is happy working with her team at Ohio State and grateful for the support she receives from Pelotonia.
She rode in Pelotonia 17, but this year, she was a virtual rider because she recently had a baby. (She and her husband Travis have three children, including a 5- and a 2-year-old.)
Her zest for understanding cancer mechanics also bears a personal dimension.
“Since I began researching cancer, I have lost both of my grandpas to this disease, as well as a friend who lived his life to the fullest and died way too young,” she explains. “So for me, it comes down to channeling my curiosity into helping patients and their loved ones by creating better treatments.”