Pelotonia Fellowship Program Funds Next Generation of Cancer Researchers
The Pelotonia Fellowship Program provides funds to train promising and accomplished undergraduate, graduate, medical and postdoctoral students from any discipline at Ohio State who have the potential to become independent cancer researchers.
The Fellowship Program, which started in 2010, has awarded 399 student fellowships through an annual allocation of $2 million in Pelotonia revenue that enables these students to conduct cancer research in the labs of faculty mentors. To date, scholarship recipients include 179 undergraduates, 114 graduates, six medical students, 86 postdoctoral fellows and 14 international scholars.
From October 2015-October 2016, the program awarded 65 fellowships to students at all levels of scholarship for conducting cancer research in the labs of faculty mentors. These recipients included 25 undergrads, 16 grad students, 17 postdoctoral fellows, two medical students and four international scholars.
The awards are made by a Pelotonia Fellowship Committee that oversees the program and includes some of Ohio State’s most distinguished basic, translational and clinical researchers from many disciplines. The committee is chaired by Fellowship Program Director Gustavo Leone, PhD, associate director for basic research at Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, a Distinguished University Professor and member of the Cancer Control Program at the OSUCCC – James, is co-chair.
“External grants are very difficult to obtain, especially for students,” says OSUCCC Director and James CEO Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, “so it’s important for us to support the next generation of promising young cancer researchers if we are to keep working effectively toward our goal of ending this disease.”
Leone says the program is truly multidisciplinary, noting that fellowships have been awarded to students working with mentors in multiple colleges and over 50 departments at Ohio State.
The Fellowship Program website (cancer.osu.edu/pelotoniaresearch) includes photos of all funded fellows, their project titles and mentors, and a lay summary and one-paragraph lay abstract describing their work. Here’s a look at three recent Pelotonia fellowship recipients and their project.
An undergrad majoring in biomedical science and French, Sophia Maharry studies the impact of the NRAS gene variant in acute myeloid leukemia (AML). She works in the lab of Albert de la Chapelle, MD, PhD, who with a team of colleagues discovered five variants of NRAS, a gene involved in the development and progression of many cancers.
“We are investigating the effects of the smallest NRAS variant, isoform 5, in AML,” Maharry says, noting that her mentor for this work was Ann-Kathrin Eisfeld, MD, a postdoctoral fellow and previous Pelotonia awardee in the de la Chapelle lab. “Experiments have shown this variant leads to more aggressive growth of cancer cells. If we can learn its role in disease progression, we can establish better targeted therapies.”
Maharry, who plans to pursue an MD/PhD and “combine my passions for cancer biology, patient care and Francophone studies,” says she was “beyond grateful to receive a Pelotonia fellowship for my work.” 2016 marked her fourth year as a Pelotonia rider. “While the ride is long and very hilly at times, the feeling of unity among everyone involved makes it worth it year after year.”
Graduate student Mark Calhoun, who earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and is pursuing a PhD at Ohio State, is investigating how physical forces acting on tumor cells, such as pressure and fluid flow, affect their ability to invade brain tissue. This information may help find a way to inhibit the invasive nature of glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer.
“Chemotherapy drugs are our most versatile way to attack a tumor, and better drugs translate to better outcomes,” says Calhoun, who works in the lab of Jessica Winter, PhD. “Drug discovery starts with identifying potential targets, and the tumor microenvironment, or the environment that the cell ‘sees,’ provides a wealth of opportunity. The goal of this project is to mine those drug targets and pave the way to new drugs.
“As engineers in the fight against cancer, the greatest contributions we can make are in modeling facets of the tumor that biologists traditionally have not been able to do,” he adds. “The really cool part of the project for me is using my skill set in a way that’s useful to the public good.” Calhoun rode 100 miles in Pelotonia 15 and 180 in 16. “It’s an honor to be on the receiving end of all the hard fundraising work that this huge community has done, and then to turn that around and give back to the community and to patients.”
Eason Hildreth, DVM, PhD
Postdoctoral fellow Eason Hildreth, DVM, PhD, is studying ways to inhibit or better treat breast cancer metastasis (spread) and growth in bone. Hildreth, who works in the lab of Michael Ostrowski, PhD, says breast cancer cells that spread to bone cause a massive activation of normal bone cells called osteoclasts, whose usual role is to break down bone so new bone can form. However, increased osteoclast activation causes accelerated bone removal, leading to bone loss, pain and fracture.
“Our research is focused on inhibiting the development and growth of bone metastases and also overcoming the limitations of current treatment methods,” Hildreth says, adding that, using a mouse model of human breast cancer in which malignant cells spread to the lung, liver, bone and brain, “We are looking at a new way to reduce osteoclast function that may also be used to inhibit or treat metastases to other organ systems.”
Hildreth, who earned his DVM at North Carolina State University in 2004 and his PhD at Ohio State in 2014 before joining the Ostrowski lab, rode in Pelotonia 15 and 16. “I will continue to raise money for years to come for Pelotonia because it is an excellent organization and cause,” he says.