Clinical researchers win NCI early career awards

Prestigious funding grants Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Drs. Corinna Palanca-Wessels and Abraham Fong 'protected time' for ovarian and pediatric cancer research

Drs. Corinna Palanca-Wessels and Abraham Fong of the Clinical Research Division have been awarded prestigious Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Awards (K08s) from the National Cancer Institute. K08 funding supports clinicians early in their careers to become well-trained, laboratory-based cancer researchers. NCI awards about 20 such grants each year to provide support and "protected time" for intensive, supervised research career development.

Funds for the fight against ovarian cancer

Drs. Corinna Palanca-Wessels and Abraham Fong
Drs. Corinna Palanca-Wessels and Abraham Fong, Clinical Research Division Photos by Dean Forbes (left) and Bo Jungmayer

Palanca-Wessels, who works in Dr. Oliver Press' lab, did her postdoctoral fellowship at the Center. Her four-year, $682,524 award will support her efforts to make ovarian cancer tumors more susceptible to chemotherapy. Ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to treat because the cancer cells can develop a resistance to therapeutic drugs by overproducing proteins that thwart their curative effects. These proteins act to protect the tumors, allowing them to survive and re-emerge later.

Researchers have found that biological molecules, called short interfering RNAs can silence specific genes, potentially blocking an ovarian tumor's dangerous "survival proteins" and thus increasing the positive effects of the chemotherapy drugs. A major hurdle in using siRNAs therapeutically is the difficulty in delivering these molecules into cancer cells.  Palanca-Wessels' work has focused on coupling antibody targeting with pH-responsive polymer carriers, developed in collaboration with Dr. Patrick Stayton at the University of Washington.

"This award is extremely important in extending my research of targeted siRNA delivery for ovarian cancer treatment. It will allow me to explore additional ovarian cancer surface markers for antibody recognition as well as identify promising therapeutic siRNA sequences," said Palanca-Wessels, who is also an acting assistant professor of hematology at UW.

Fong award supports pediatric cancer research

Fong, who is mentored by Dr. Stephen Tapscott, was awarded $635,640 over four years for his promising work in pediatric cancers.

"Cancer cells possess defects in normal cellular maturation processes, resulting in the abnormal growth of immature cells. My research seeks to understand both the normal mechanism cells use to mature, and how cancer cells avoid these normal maturation processes," said Fong, who is also an acting instructor in pediatric hematology-oncology at Seattle Children's Hospital. "This may ultimately lead to treatments focused on forcing cancer cells to mature, rather than killing them with cytotoxic chemotherapy."

Fong aims to better understand how cells transition from young and immature cells to cells with a specific function, which will illuminate how cancerous cells like neuroblastomas and rhabdomyosarcomas fail to respond to the normal maturation signals that result in differentiation and cessation of growth. He hopes his research will lead to the development of novel, less toxic therapies for children with cancer.

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