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Hutchinson Center physician scientist Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels receives Kuni Scholar Award

She is among three Pacific Northwest scientists in the inaugural class of Kuni Scholars

SEATTLE – July 7, 2011 – Her inspiration to become a physician scientist: the death of her beloved aunt from ovarian cancer. Her dream: to defeat the disease by developing a way to make ovarian tumors more susceptible to chemotherapy.

Dr. Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels
Dr. Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels photo by Dean Forbes

Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is one step closer to making her dream a reality thanks to an award of $200,000 over two years provided by the Wayne D. Kuni and Joan E. Kuni Foundation of Vancouver, Wash., and the Kuni family (through the 3725 Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation). She is among three promising cancer researchers in the Pacific Northwest in the inaugural class of Kuni Scholars.

"With the generous support of the Kuni Foundation, my colleagues and I aim to translate significant research discoveries into effective and safe treatments for patients suffering from ovarian cancer and other malignancies,” said Palanca-Wessels, a research associate in the laboratory of Oliver Press, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the Hutchinson Center's Clinical Research Division.

"Corinna is an exceptionally well-qualified medical scientist with an exciting research future who has chosen a highly promising research project that is likely to lead to innovations in the treatment of ovarian cancer and other malignancies,” Press said.

Palanca-Wessels first became fascinated by medicine in high school, during a freshman biology course. Intellectual curiosity about the intricacies of cells, genes and DNA played a large part, but it became personal when my aunt, my sole relative in the United States who housed my family after our emigration from the Philippines, tragically succumbed to advanced-stage ovarian cancer,” she said.

By the time a woman experiences symptoms of ovarian cancer, her tumor often has spread widely throughout the abdomen and the prognosis is grim, which is why ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynecologic malignancy in the U.S. Despite intensive research efforts, only 30 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive more than five years.

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 (siRNAs), can silence specific genes. I plan to evaluate a subset of these siRNAs to determine whether they can block an ovarian tumor's dangerous ‘survival proteins' and thus increase the positive effects of the chemotherapy drugs,” she said.

Palanca-Wessels' long-term goal is to discover and develop a cure for ovarian cancer by introducing siRNAs directly into a woman's ovarian tumor cells using unique tumor-targeted siRNA carriers. Our approach would be groundbreaking and could be individualized for a patient's unique tumor profile. This approach holds great promise to provide a personalized therapy not only for ovarian cancer patients but for people with lymphoma, lung, colon or other cancers.”

The Kuni Scholars Program was created this year by the Kuni Foundation and the Kuni family (through the Oregon Community Foundation). The program aims to further the careers of talented young investigators in the field of clinical cancer research.

We want to encourage and nurture the rising stars in the field of cancer research,” said Carolyn W. Miller, president of the Kuni Foundation. We foresee today's young scientists contributing to medical breakthroughs that will benefit cancer patients for generations to come.”

Kristen Woodward
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
(206) 667-5095

Lynne Siegel
Kuni Foundation
(360) 213-0937


Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, our interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists and humanitarians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Our researchers, including three Nobel laureates, bring a relentless pursuit and passion for health, knowledge and hope to their work and to the world. For more information, please visit

About the Wayne D. Kuni and Joan E. Kuni Foundation
The Kuni Foundation awards grants in two primary areas of interest – clinical cancer research and supported housing and socialization for senior adults with developmental disabilities. The Foundation is the largest shareholder of Kuni Automotive, a retail dealership holding company that owns nine dealerships in four states. In the Northwest, these include Kuni BMW and Lexus of Portland, Ore., as well as Lexus of Seattle and Kuni Westside Infiniti, both in Lynwood, Wash.