Cancer Research Alliance forges new collaborations, strengthens research programs at inaugural retreat
More than 100 cancer researchers from across Virginia Tech met at the first Cancer Research Alliance retreat hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC
“What a phenomenal opportunity. Bringing resources and people together from a wide spectrum of fields to achieve this common goal: to help fight cancer.”
That was a key takeaway for Monet Roberts, a postdoctoral associate and Virginia Tech cancer researcher who presented a poster at the first Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance retreat, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
More than 100 cancer researchers from across Virginia Tech campuses from Blacksburg, Roanoke, and the greater Washington, D.C., area participated in the day-long retreat, which included poster presentations, tabletop discussions, and podium talks delivered by an interdisciplinary cohort of experts in cancer research and oncological care.
Virginia Tech’s Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Michael Friedlander set the tone for the retreat by portraying the university’s unique research strengths, academic partnerships, and rapidly expanding interdisciplinary biomedical cancer research and veterinary oncology programs.
“By bringing together all the experts here in human and animal cancer research, we’ve formed this powerful convergence that enables us to look forward to the future, supporting new breakthroughs,” said Friedlander, who also serves as the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s executive director. “I think there will be great things to come in the future for mankind and our animal friends from the alliance’s efforts and new collaborations.”
Six cancer researchers from Virginia Tech, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Children’s National Hospital, and the University of Virginia presented talks during the retreat. More than 30 Virginia Tech researchers also presented posters revealing new data and discoveries in cancer research.
A ‘win-win’: Improving outcomes for human and canine brain cancer patients
The retreat began with a talk about targeting gliomas, a common form of brain cancer, with emerging technologies. Waldemar Debinski, the Tom and Laura Hearn Professor and director of the Brain Tumor Center of Excellence at Wake Forest School of Medicine, described the pros and cons of applying electric therapy, passive immunotherapy, and targeted cytotoxic therapy to optimize drug delivery into brain cancer cells.
Debinski also presented research advancing clinical trials in dogs with gliomas. This form of cancer is molecularly indistinguishable among humans and dogs, according to a study published in Cancer Cell in 2020.
“We’ve seen exceptional responses to a cocktail of targeted cytotoxins in dogs with spontaneous gliomas,” Debinski said. “The more molecular targets we can hit, the better.”
Debinski was recently awarded a $3.8 million National Institutes of Health grant with John Rossmeisl, the Dr. and Mrs. Dorsey Taylor Mahin Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, interim director of the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and Cancer Research Alliance member.
Retreat attendees also heard from Audrey Ruple, a cancer researcher and associate professor in the veterinary college. Ruple’s extensive research program applies comparative medicine to uncover why cancer occurs and how dogs and humans alike can live longer, healthier lives.
“Dogs can be our heroes for improved outcomes in human populations,” Ruple said. “Studying and treating spontaneously derived cancers in dogs helps both species. It’s a win-win.”
From drugs to lasers: Discovering and advancing new cancer treatments
Virginia Tech’s strengths in chemistry and molecular drug development are far-reaching. Paul Carlier, professor and director of the College of Science’s Center for Drug Discovery, told Cancer Research Alliance members about unique resources available to help researchers across Virginia Tech develop new drugs and drug delivery methods to treat cancer. The center’s screening laboratory assists researchers to conduct cell- and enzyme-based screening assays, enabling access to more than 40,000 chemical compounds.
The alliance members also heard about new cancer research being conducted by their colleagues at Children’s National Hospital, Virginia Tech’s newest research partner.
Muller Fabbri, associate director of Children’s National’s Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, discussed his laboratory’s research targeting molecular structures in cancer cells with microRNAs, as well as exosomal drug delivery. Exosome drug delivery technology also is being developed and commercialized at Virginia Tech by a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Robert Gourdie, representing yet another alignment of interdisciplinary research efforts across the alliance and Virginia Tech’s academic partners.
Laser therapy is a minimally invasive neurosurgical technique that allows clinicians to biopsy brain tumors and ablate cancer cells. Mark Witcher, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and a neurosurgeon at Carilion Clinic, also explained that while glioma patient survival rates have remained roughly the same over the last several decades, targeted laser therapy is less expensive and invasive than traditional methods. Laser therapy also enables shorter hospital stays and allows the patient to receive chemotherapy or radiation therapies sooner while maintaining a better quality of life over time that remains available to them.
“The scientific aspect of it, the intellectual spark, is just fantastic. What an honor to be in a room of people that have so many amazing findings and skill sets that we can all bring to the table,” Witcher said.
The importance of cancer tissue sample collection and storage
Breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer are relatively common — yet within each of those are thousands of subtypes.
Christoper Moskaluk, professor and chairman of the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, underscored the importance of collecting, processing, biobanking, and organizing tumor specimens from patients to help advance cancer research. Moskaluk and his colleagues use advanced algorithms and spatial profiling to analyze tissue sample pathology and quantify the presence of specific RNA and proteins.
Moskaluk also emphasized that through Virginia Tech’s research partnership with UVA, scientists in the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance benefit from the same access to the university’s Biorepository and Tissue Research Facility as UVA faculty.
The inaugural Cancer Research Alliance retreat was organized by the alliance’s co-director, Carla Finkielstein, and staff at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
“Many of us haven’t met each other in-person since before the pandemic,” said Finkielstein, who is also an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Lab. “Symposia like this give us all the chance to forge new collaborations, access resources, strengthen existing programs with interdisciplinary approaches, and ultimately, we can all learn from each other.”