Research is a key component of learning more about what causes ovarian cancer. The Sandy Rollman Foundation chatted with Hershey, PA ovarian cancer researcher Katherine Aird about what goes on in the lab and what makes her job so rewarding and inspiring.
SROCF: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you attend grad school and undergrad?
Katherine: I am currently an assistant professor at the Penn State College of Medicine out in Hershey, and I just celebrated my lab’s three year anniversary- it’s been fun. I went to Duke in Durham, North Carolina for grad school and Johns Hopkins for undergrad.
SROCF: How did you get into this field, and why is cancer research such an important field of study.
Katherine: I didn’t actually plan it that way. When I went to graduate school, I had a different idea in my head about the thing that I thought I wanted to research but ended up rotating in a cancer biology lab. I was pretty much hooked at that point. It touches all of our lives, and I think that is somewhat important to me. I always tell people that doing what we do as scientists is like being a detective. You’re always trying to figure things out and putting all kinds of pieces together. I think for a lot of reasons understanding cancer has been challenging, and I like that challenge.
SROCF: So what lead you to move more into ovarian cancer research?
Katherine: I find it very rewarding from a research perspective. Almost everything we’re doing no one has ever looked at before which is really neat as a scientist. It’s kind of cool that to think, “Oh my gosh wow no one has ever gotten these results before or looked at ovarian cancer in this way.” I also think that while I’ve luckily not been affected personally by ovarian cancer itself the community needs more people in it. It’s just a great community of researchers. I really enjoy that part of it giving back and seeing where we can go both from the research perspective and the outreach perspective.
SROCF: Can you share a little bit of insight on your relationship with Robin and the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation? How did that establish?
Katherine: We have a very small, but active, group here in ovarian cancer research and we also collaborate with oncologists. It’s really great to have people from so many different backgrounds. For over three years now we felt like there was a critical mass that we wanted to start a research center. Of course it’s going to be very small because there’s not a lot of us, but we are small and mighty, and we are ambitious driven women.
We had this idea and one of the people I talked to was in our foundation’s relations office and she had spoken to Robin at some point. She then suggested I invite her out to explain our research and everything we’ve been doing. Considering I’d only been in the area a little while, I didn’t know much about the Sandy Rollman Foundation. So, Robin came out to our lab, and we spent the majority of the day together. She told the story of Sandy passing, and I was in tears. We looked at each other and just knew there was something we could build together. Sometimes you just have this instinct that someone is on your level with understanding an unspoken thing.
SROCF: That’s really moving and inspiring. How did that make you feel? What was your reaction?
Katherine: Well, it’s just such an inspiring story to think that you spend your whole life as a nurse and then create an entire foundation based off one moment. It’s just incredible to me on so many levels and so inspiring.
SROCF: What were the next steps in creating a stronger partnership with the lab and the foundation?
Katherine: So, that day I got to hear a lot more about Robin, and also about the foundation, and we really hit it off. We told her a lot about what we were trying to do, and then she and the Sandy Rollman foundation are both very active on Twitter and so am I, so that’s how we’ve kept in touch. She was able to see how our lab tackles these problems, and I can see what they’re doing in terms of advocacy.
Once, I saw on Twitter that they were traveling to DC to lobby for ovarian cancer research, and I wanted to be there. I told her to let me know the next time they go, because I would have loved to participate. I just find that things like this are so inspiring, and there’s no other foundation that touched me the way this did.
SROCF: Can you tell us how grants help further your research, and why is it so important to the ovarian cancer community?
Katherine: Unfortunately, this is the world we live in and that is we live off grant funding to do basic science research at academic institutions and every little piece helps tremendously. It could be helping me keep a graduate student funded for a year or a postdoc or something like that. In terms of the research, we’re trying to understand these new drugs that have been approved. The first new approved drugs for ovarian cancer in the last couple of years are these inhibitors of the enzyme, PARP, and it’s really exciting. The whole field is overwhelmed because basically we didn’t have a new drug for so long. Unfortunately, there are still lots of problems. A lot of women either don’t respond or they’ll become resistant and we need to understand that.
We’re taking a different approach than other labs, and we’re trying to understand how the cancer cells use nutrients like glucose on a cellular level in response to these drugs. There are some FDA approved drugs for other cancer types that we are using now in combination with PARP inhibitors to try to see whether we could make the cells die. That’s the main idea of the grant. So far, things are heading in the right direction.
SROCF: Can you describe a day in the life of what you do on a daily basis and just talk about what your discoveries and findings are?
Katherine: Some of the work we are doing as part of the grant from the Sandy Rollman Foundation is to try to understand the early events in tumorigenesis. A lot of the work has been done on very late stage patients because they’re often diagnosed very late and of course that’s very important for multiple reasons. Our lab has been interested in what’s happening really early on. I have this grand plan, although no clear evidence to support the fact that I can do this in my career, that maybe we could come up with preventative measures if we understand what happens really early in the disease.
We’re looking at how the cells are using metabolism or using nutrients to affect all of their different cancer properties. We hope that some of those things may allow us to better understand how the cancer forms in the first place, and then it’s possible then we could come up with new targets based on that. That’s maybe 50 years down the road, but it’s a goal of mine and the lab that I’m going to keep working for.