New Brave Fellowship powers Dr. Alyssa Webster’s race for new leukemia cures

Running community funded new program to develop leaders in rare cancer research and advocates for diversity in science

Running helped Dr. Alyssa Webster to navigate the challenges she faced during her graduate school training. Now, running is helping fuel her scientific career in an unexpected way: by funding her research.

Webster is the inaugural recipient of the Brave Fellowship, a new research fellowship at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center funded by Brooks Running on behalf of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. It is supported by Brooks’ profits from the sale of its Brave Like Gabe Launch 7 running shoe, named in honor of runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, who died of cancer in 2019.

Dr. Alyssa Webster, recipient of the 2020 Brave Fellowship, talks about her research on acute myeloid leukemia and what running has meant for her science. Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Grunewald, who ran for Brooks during her nine-year professional career, underwent multiple rounds of treatments for adenoid cystic carcinoma. During her decade of living with cancer, she founded the Brave Like Gabe Foundation to raise awareness and fund research on rare cancers like hers. The goal of the fellowship is to develop scientific leaders who will advocate for a diverse and inclusive biomedical research workforce focused on rare cancer research.

Webster, a native of rural Wisconsin who was the first in her family to attend college, still finds the time to run when she needs to recharge from her busy life as a postdoctoral researcher at Fred Hutch. In the lab of Hutch faculty member Dr. Julian Simon, Webster studies acute myeloid leukemia, which accounts for 1% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Her goal is to develop new, targeted drugs that can cure more people with this relatively rare cancer.

We sat down with Webster to ask about her research, her running, and the hope she has for her new fellowship to spark discoveries that save lives in the future. In the video above, watch Webster describe her vision for the impact of her science and the role running has played in her scientific career. Read more about her research and her background below.

What do you study?

What I’m currently working on is developing drugs for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, more commonly known as AML. AML has about a 25% survival rate over five years, and it’s also a rare blood cancer. …

My research is focused on what is going on within the [AML] cells. Within acute myeloid leukemia, it has been found that there is a specific protein called sirtuin 2 that exists at higher levels within AML cells versus normal blood cells. The goal of my research is to make specific, targeted drugs that will target this protein and prevent it from carrying out its normal activities, because high levels of this protein have been associated with invasiveness of cancers, migration of cancers, drug resistance. It plays a big role in how cancers progress.

We understand there were some challenges in your path toward becoming a scientist.

Well, it’s really hard for me to talk about the challenges I faced in becoming a scientist, because I grew up being told that — no matter what — if you work hard enough, if you are determined enough that’s all that matters, that you can achieve your goals.

Growing up, I always knew that college was in my future. That was something I was always told. But I was responsible for figuring out a way to pay for it, because my parents just didn’t have the financial ability to do that.

So I worked all through high school in a variety of different jobs, mostly grocery stores as a cashier, that sort of thing, saving for college. For my senior year, I decided to go to a two-year university that offered tuition to high school students as a means to offset the college costs. So instead of having a normal senior year where you say goodbye to all of your friends, I decided to attend that. And that experience is what inspired me to be a scientist, and to go into chemistry, specifically, which led me to biology. I also worked my entire time through undergrad.

During that whole experience, I never really realized how disproportionate being a woman in science was until I went to grad school. There, it was a lot more obvious that women were less welcome. We were treated differently in significant, overt ways — harassment, and sexual harassment. But I was fortunate enough that I had a wonderful and supportive PI [principal investigator], and I really don’t think I would have gotten through my graduate school without his help and support.

So even though there were a lot of challenges throughout my whole path to becoming a scientist, there were people along the way that really inspired me and encouraged me to keep going even when I didn’t always believe in myself. And that’s been really meaningful for me.

How did your project on AML develop?

My research project began with a big National Cancer Institute research fund. That was a five-year grant and was specifically making drugs to target the protein that I had previously mentioned, sirtuin 2. But when I joined the [Simon Lab] group, we had been studying it in the context of B cell lymphoma, which is also a rare cancer. But I had the opportunity to apply for funding on a different grant. I was told to develop a new project or think about a new angle for our research for sirtuin 2.

So, I dove into the literature, which is always the first step in science, to see what has been done. And I found a lot of literature on sirtuin 2 into its role in a lot of different cancers. And as I looked through the different types of cancers that sirtuin 2 is acting in, I found acute myeloid leukemia. And I thought it was really interesting that it’s poorly understood exactly what role this protein is playing in cancer.

I wanted to figure out what’s going on, because if you don’t know what’s going on in the cells, then it’s really hard to figure out a way to treat the cancer. … There were a couple hypotheses that I’d been following. But I really wanted to get in there to come up with a treatment option that would actually work, where we understand: How is it working? What exactly is it doing within these cells? So I steered the project toward acute myeloid leukemia. I was able to get one-year funding, and then I saw the opportunity for the Brave Like Gabe Fellowship.

And I was a runner, and running has played such a huge role in my life — as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety, running has really helped with nervous energy and my overall mood. I also found Gabe’s story really inspiring. She was so determined. And I really admired that.

What are the next steps for your research with this philanthropic funding?

We’ve done now the basic research to support this project, and my hope is that we’re going to be able to move into more realistic models. Currently we’ve only done research on established cell lines, which we normally do our experiments on. But this next year, we’re going to be moving into patient samples, which is exciting because it’s more of a real-world experience and gives us more real-world information. If our drugs can effectively act upon sirtuin 2 in these cells, it’s going to be really promising and moving even closer to a therapeutic drug treatment option for acute myeloid leukemia. So, it’s really, really exciting.

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Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

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