Emma Wrenn, a graduate student in the Molecular & Cellular Biology program at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a 2021 recipient of the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award for outstanding achievement in the biological sciences. She is one of 13 recipients of the award this year, selected from a competitive pool of candidates from institutions around the world.
The Weintraub Award was established in 2000 to honor the life and work of Dr. Harold “Hal” Weintraub, who died of brain cancer in 1995 at age 49. He was a founding member of the Basic Sciences Division at the Hutch and an esteemed molecular biologist who contributed profoundly to our understanding of embryonic development in vertebrates.
“From the beginning of her work with my lab, Emma pursued research at the interface of cell biology and translational cancer research,” said Wrenn’s mentor, Fred Hutch faculty member Dr. Kevin Cheung. “I’m pleased to see Emma rewarded for her initiative in bridging these interests — and for her commitment in the face of many tireless hours, nights and weekends under the microscope and at the bench.”
Wrenn was the first graduate student to work in the Cheung Lab in 2016. Her goal was to understand how tumor cell clusters — clumps of cells that break off from a primary tumor and travel through the lymph or bloodstream — drive metastatic breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread outside the breast.
“When I started, Kevin had a lot of exciting research showing how cell clusters are 50 times more likely to create new metastases than single tumor cells. That meant that these clusters could be an extremely important group of cells to target in reducing metastatic potential,” says Wrenn. “If we want to improve patient outcomes, metastasis is one of the most important things to address.”
So Wrenn sought to understand the mechanism behind why clusters had so much metastatic potential. Working with laboratory mice, she found that tumor cells group together in microscopic clusters to form tiny reservoirs between them, then pump the reservoirs full of a growth factor protein called epigen. These secret reservoirs, called “nanolumina,” are where the tumor cells communicate with each other as a group in order to aggressively grow to create new tumors.
Wrenn also developed a new way to grow organoids, or mini-tumors used in the lab to study breast cancer — making it possible to do larger experiments more easily, and at a fraction of the cost. This technique facilitated the experiments that helped her discover nanolumina.
Wrenn’s research then transitioned from mice to human breast cancer cells. She found that epigen and nanolumina are enriched in a particular subtype of breast cancer, Basal-like 2 triple negative breast cancer. This cancer is not well understood and is associated with poor patient outcomes, and her team is trying to block the pro-growth signals associated with it or develop new therapies so that cancerous cells grow less — with the goal of stopping metastases from forming throughout the body.
“Emma has produced important insights into cancer metastasis and pioneered new methods for organoid cultivation and modeling,” Cheung said.
Wrenn is graduating with her Ph.D. from UW this spring and transitioning out of the Cheung Lab, but several team members are continuing her research. They’re trying to understand how nanolumina interact with other immune cells and are researching other proteins in these spaces. They’re also teaming up with Fred Hutch clinical care partner Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to study patient biopsies to learn more about growth factors and nanolumina.
In receiving the Weintraub Award, Wrenn said she is excited to see that other scientists are as interested in the inner workings of nanolumina as she has been for the past five years.
“With scientific research, you experience a lot of failures, a lot of experiments not working, a lot of projects dead-ending — so it’s very exciting and encouraging when you finally land on something the scientific community thinks is worthwhile,” says Wrenn.
The award is supported by the Weintraub/Groudine Fellowship for Science and Human Disease, established to foster intellectual exchange through the promotion of programs for graduate students, fellows and visiting scholars. Each awardee will receive an honorarium and certificate commemorating the award.
After graduation, Wrenn is aiming to complete a postdoctoral fellowship studying cancer metastasis. She said that the Hutch has been important for her development as a researcher and that she will miss its collegial atmosphere.
“The founders of the Hutch, and particularly Hal Weintraub, helped to create a highly collaborative environment between students and researchers where students’ contributions are valued and can help shape the future of cancer research,” Wrenn said. And it’s clear that Wrenn’s innovative contributions to metastatic research will be missed by her colleagues in the lab, but they’re looking forward to seeing the continued evolution of her work.
“In the clinic, we know cancer is a war,” says Cheung. “And I have felt very lucky to have Emma on our team in our battle to beat cancer.”
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