Training the Next Generation
Pelotonia Fellowships Support & Encourage Future Cancer Researchers
Promising and accomplished undergraduate, graduate, medical and postdoctoral students who want to conduct cancer research with faculty mentors are getting their chance through the Pelotonia Fellowship Program.
Since it started in 2010, the Fellowship Program has allocated more than $13 million to award fellowships to 436 students, including 205 undergraduates, 128 graduates, 97 postdoctoral researchers and six medical students.
In addition to these awards, the program has provided international research experiences for 21 Ohio State undergraduate students 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 awarded by a 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 Pelotonia Program Director Joanna Groden, PhD, of the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Program at the OSUCCC – James, and is co-chaired by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of the OSUCCC – James Cancer Control Program.
“Research grants from external sources 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 so we can continue working toward our goal of ending this disease.”
The Fellowship Program website (cancer.osu.edu/pelotoniaresearch) includes the names of all funded fellows and their project titles. It also includes photos of the most recent fellowship recipients.
Here’s a look at three Pelotonia recipients, their projects and continued progress.
In science, learning from studies that go awry can be as rewarding as learning from successful projects.
Jackson Killian, a fifth-year undergraduate majoring in Physics and Computer & Information Science, found that out while conducting cancer research as a Pelotonia fellowship recipient.
Working with faculty co-advisers Ralf Bundschuh, PhD, and Pearlly Yan, PhD, Killian tried to develop a computational technique that would give researchers a key to access older, lower-quality cancer tissue samples that are largely unusable in modern studies, which use techniques requiring high-quality samples.
“We studied and characterized many effects that make using lower quality samples challenging, but ultimately the effects we corrected for did not open the door to as many samples as we had hoped,” Killian says.
Although disappointed that his hypothesis did not pan out, he thinks of the setback as part of his learning experience. He also agrees with a widely held view among scientists that interpreting unexpected outcomes and trying to understand what happened is part of the challenge—and fun—of research.
“In fact, my favorite moment from working on my fellowship centered on an instance like this,” Killian recalls. While looking for an effect that he was sure would be expressed in low-quality tissue samples, he found the effect to be “perplexingly invisible. So I dug through literature for days to interpret this outcome and tweaked my analysis. With my new analysis, this effect exploded off the page. I will never forget how gratifying that feeling of discovery was.”
The New Jersey native also completed a secondary project with Bundschuh and Yan in which they developed a Web-based tool called FuSpot that enables researchers to build pictures of gene fusions from the DNA of cancer tissue samples. (Fusions occur when sections of DNA break from their original positions and merge into new DNA strands that can create or exacerbate cancers.)
“FuSpot will aid in the detection and validation of new cancerous fusions, and in the future it could even assist with diagnoses,” Killian says. He lectured on FuSpot at the 2017 Pelotonia Fellowship Symposium on Oct. 24 in Ohio State’s Biomedical Research Tower.
Killian, who considers Bundschuh and Yan to be “invaluable mentors,” says his career goal is “to conduct research that applies computational techniques from computer science to challenging problems affecting social good.”
He is grateful for the opportunity “to have trained at one of the nation’s top research hospitals” and to “give back to this amazing community through my future research.”
He also rode 50 miles in Pelotonia 16 as a member of Team Buckeye on behalf of his grandmother, Ethel, who lived with his family for two years before passing away after a battle with ovarian cancer.
“She was the voice of my childhood that made me own the belief that I could conquer any challenge,” Killian says. “I rode for her.”
Peter Yu, an MD candidate in the class of 2018, devoted two years to full-time cancer research between his third and fourth years of medical school at Ohio State. That experience included a 2016-17 Pelotonia fellowship he received to study liposarcoma with faculty mentors Denis Guttridge, PhD, Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD, and Hans Iwenofu, MD.
“I started a small project in cancer research during my first two years of medical school, but it wasn’t until I started clinical rotations and was learning how to take care of patients with cancer that I realized I needed to return to the lab to advance cancer research,” Yu wrote in his project summary. His work focuses on sarcomas— rare cancers that arise from bone, muscle and fat.
His Pelotonia-supported research, which he completed earlier this year, involved liposarcoma, the second most common type of sarcoma. “A microRNA is a small molecule that can affect hundreds of genes at once. Our laboratory team found that a microRNA that stops muscle cancer might also stop liposarcoma,” Yu says. “Understanding how this microRNA works in liposarcoma could lead us to more effective treatments.”
Yu, who is still conducting cancer research with Guttridge and Pollock as his co-mentors, lectured about his Pelotonia-funded work at the annual Pelotonia Fellowship Symposium held Oct. 24 in Ohio State’s Biomedical Research Tower. His presentation focused on dedifferentiated liposarcoma and how his team found the loss of a microRNA called miR-133a in this disease.
“I explained the experiments we conducted to understand how miR-133a functions in this disease,” Yu says, adding that his team discovered “that miR-133a affects the metabolism of dedifferentiated liposarcoma. My presentation was from my Pelotonia fellowship study, and I have continued to work on this project.”
In fact, he will keep studying cancer throughout his medical school experience. “I am completing an Advanced Competency in Research during my fourth year, which gives me lots of time to commit to full-time cancer research,” Yu says, noting that he also received an Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship to support his studies.
Yu, an Illinois native with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University, completed the full 180-mile ride in Pelotonia 17 as co-captain of the BSR-Spin Doctors Peloton (riding group). After he earns his MD, he plans to become an academic medical oncologist with laboratory and clinical responsibilities.
“I am applying to several internal medicine physician scientist training programs,” he says. “The research experience and training provided by my Pelotonia fellowship were instrumental in helping me realize my passions and career goals.”
Emily Theisen, PhD
When Emily Theisen, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Stephen Lessnick, MD, PhD, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital (NCH), set out to earn her PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, she didn’t plan to devote her research to childhood cancer.
“I just wanted to design better drugs. I think (the discipline of) pediatric cancer found me, not the other way around,” Theisen says, explaining that her PhD project involved compounds that “serendipitously worked in two pediatric cancers: Ewing sarcoma and T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia. We still don’t fully understand how these compounds work, and it strikes me that there’s so much we don’t know that could help kids with cancer.”
Two pediatric physicians who mentored Theisen at Utah “showed me how important research is in pediatric cancer. My hope is to stay in academia and run my own research program.”
At NCH, Theisen is part of a team that has what she describes as “a laser focus on Ewing sarcoma.” She explains that this disease is caused by a single mutant protein called EWS/FLI that is found only in Ewing sarcoma cells, and she notes that all attempts to target it with drugs have failed. Theisen is working to figure out how the normal machinery in the cell gets hijacked by EWS/FLI in order to design better therapies.
“Our group wants to bring insights gained from a deep understanding of basic disease biology to a place where they make a difference for patients,” she says. “My Pelotonia fellowship (which extends through April 30, 2018) was the game changer for me. It allowed me to hire the first member of my team, a research technician. I can’t emphasize enough how much this support has impacted my decision to devote my career to pediatric cancer.”
Theisen and her mother, a former tour cyclist, rode 25 miles in Pelotonia 16. In Pelotonia 17, Theisen rode the full 180 miles with the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Peloton; her mother was a virtual rider.
Noting that her mother “raised us to embrace the challenges in life, always emphasizing running and biking uphill for fun,” Theisen looks forward to the professional challenges that lie ahead as she continues on a career trek to help end cancer.