Cancer Researchers Form a New Team to Beat Ovarian Cancer

Madison, Wisconsin - They may not be taking the field together anytime soon, but unique teamwork from cancer researchers, advocates, former college football teammates and donors may yet tackle ovarian cancer.


Cassandra Niemi, MD, a first-year gynecologic oncology fellow at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center was awarded a $10,000 grant from Colleen’s Dream Foundation, the first to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to develop more sensitive methods of detecting the ovarian cancer biomarker CA125. The foundation awards seed funding to early-career scientists who are investigating improved early detection methods of the disease.


"Most ovarian cancers are diagnosed at later stages and that makes it much harder to treat," Niemi said. "The goal is to find more women with cancer earlier so that there is a better chance of a cure."


Niemi began the research component of her fellowship in July with Manish Patankar, PhD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Together, they proposed a way to improve upon current methods for detecting the cancer marker.


"Currently there is an antibody-based test for CA125, but our previous work has shown the test is not recognizing all of the CA125 antigen present in the bloodstream," Patankar said. "There is a one- to two-year window where you can potentially start detecting cancer earlier, and the focus of our test is to capture the antigen to the fullest extent that it is in the blood and to develop a very sensitive readout."


Niemi and Patankar's plan is to develop a biosensor cell that will bind to CA125 in a patient's blood sample and then transmit a signal through the sensor cell, leading to a measureable output such as fluorescent light production. "That signal can be quantified more accurately and more sensitively, we expect, than the antibody test," Patankar said.


Armed with this new and potentially life-saving idea, Niemi and Patankar were initially unaware of the funding support Colleen's Dream could provide. Enter Austin Streeper, a supporter of the Carbone Cancer Center and member of its Emerging Leadership Board.


Streeper attended Drake University with Nicole Cundiff, whose mother, Colleen Drury, passed away from ovarian cancer and is the namesake of and motivation for Colleen's Dream. In addition to Cundiff, the board of the foundation includes her husband, NFL kicker Billy Cundiff, and Jeff Seaman, both of whom are former college football teammates of Streeper's; Michelle Batschelet, another of Colleen's daughters; and John Shufeldt, who also attended Drake.


"I thought there might be researchers at Carbone that do the type of work that Colleen's Dream supports, so I emailed Jeff [Seaman] and asked how I could get them teamed up," Streeper said. He worked with Carbone staff to identify Niemi as one such researcher, and the foundation invited her to submit the proposal that was reviewed and funded.


Patankar said that although earlier detection of CA125 will lead to earlier diagnosis for many women with ovarian cancer, he and Niemi expect even broader impacts from this pilot project. "We want to create a platform that can be expanded from CA125 to other biomarkers for other diseases," he said.


Date Published: 11/09/2015

News tag(s):  cancerresearchphilanthropy

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