News and Media
Rebecca Whelan Receives $345,000 Grant for Cancer Research
Aug. 26, 2011
The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute have awarded Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Rebecca Whelan a $345,000 grant for cancer detection and diagnosis research.
A bioanalytical chemist, Whelan is interested in developing reliable non-invasive tests for early detection of ovarian cancer, which is responsible for approximately 14,600 deaths in the United States each year.
Treatment is most effective when the disease is diagnosed early. For cases diagnosed in stage I, with malignancy localized to the ovary, treatment tends to be effective and 93% of patients survive the first five years after diagnosis. Mortality from ovarian cancer remains high because only 19% of cases are diagnosed at an early stage. For women with more advanced disease, the five-year survival rate is only 30%. These statistics suggest that significant public health benefits can be gained from improved early detection of ovarian cancer resulting from a better understanding of the biological molecules associated with the disease.
Tests for biomarkers found in the blood of women with ovarian cancer are widely used by physicians. Whelan’s goal is to develop new ways of measuring the amounts of three important cancer biomarkers. Whelan also seeks to develop new methods for looking at the surfaces of tumors and selectively killing cancer cells.
“We’re very interested in understanding more about ovarian cancer biomarkers so we can use our knowledge to develop better diagnostic tools and therapies,” says Whelan, who earned a Ph.D. at Stanford University in 2003. She became interested in detecting ovarian cancer shortly after arriving at Oberlin in 2005 as an assistant professor.
“As a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, my scholarly work had focused on the generic problem of detecting proteins,” Whelan says. “When I began my career as an independent investigator, I thought to myself: I know a lot of good ways to detect proteins — are there any proteins out there for which better detection is actually needed? I started reading and learned that ovarian cancer is currently diagnosed, in part, by detection of a specific blood protein called a biomarker. I also learned that there is no test for ovarian cancer that is good enough to be used in population-wide screening, such as the kind we have in the Pap smear for cervical cancer.
“When I learned that early detection of ovarian cancer—although currently an elusive goal—translates directly into improved outcomes for women, I was determined to work toward this worthy goal.”
The three-year grant runs through August 2014. During year one, Whelan will take a research sabbatical hosted at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. She will return to Oberlin for years two and three. The grant will provide funding for Whelan to train two undergraduate students per year and mentor them in aptamer selection and assay development. A recently graduated Oberlin undergraduate will be employed as a full-time research technician in year three.
Whelan’s vision for early detection of ovarian cancer will eliminate problems with both false negative and false positive blood tests by bringing in two additional biomarkers. She also proposes substituting the antibody molecules that are used in current tests with a different class of molecules called aptamers, which are more robust, capable of being heated up and cooled down many times, and retain their ability to detect biomarkers. Whelan says this innovation has the potential to make a test that has a longer shelf life and can be transported to places where refrigeration may not be available.
Funding from the grant will be vital to moving Whelan’s research forward. An important discovery that her laboratory has already made, which was published in the journal Tumor Biology in 2010, is that a single amino acid substitution (i.e., swapping out of one of the protein's building blocks for a different one) makes the difference between a biomarker that remains fluid in solution and one that aggregates onto itself, forming a sticky glue.
“One theory about what biomarkers do in the body is that they provide a protective coating around cancer cells during the process of metastasis, when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body,” she says. “My lab's findings about sticky vs. non-sticky biomarker proteins may shed light on which cancers are more or less likely to spread throughout the body.”
Whelan’s next goal is to is develop methods to send tiny metal particles specifically to the surface of cancer cells by using the biomarkers, particularly those that are likely to aid the spread of the cancer, as a docking site. Once the metal particles are affixed to the surface of the cancer cell, she can use the particles to get detailed pictures of where the cancer cells are located or to selectively heat up the cells, causing them to melt and die, while other cells in the body are unharmed.
At the heart of Whelan’s groundbreaking research are Oberlin undergraduates who have published papers with her and presented their results at regional and scientific conferences. That kind of experience gives student researchers an incredible leg up on their peers at graduate institutions.
“My research is inherently interdisciplinary and draws on a lot of different research tools and techniques,” she says. “As a result, students who work with me are really challenged to stretch their minds and develop their skills beyond what even our rigorous lab curriculum requires. I have been fortunate in getting to work with some wonderfully bright and focused students, often for multiple semesters and summers.
“Although I will be away from the Oberlin campus and learning new skills in a lab at the University of Wisconsin Medical School during the 2011-2012 academic year, I’m already looking forward to returning to my lab at Oberlin and working closely with students.”