When Drs. Alana and Bryan Welm arrived at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation last summer, they brought boxes of lab supplies and equipment, as well as a staff of technicians, students and postdoctoral fellows. They also brought with them an intangible, yet most valuable, asset: hope.
For this husband-and-wife team, that hope comes in the form of precision medicine, which uses genetic and biological information to tailor treatments for individual cancer patients. “The ultimate goal is to provide this information to the oncologists treating that patient so we can develop more optimal therapies for that specific person,” said Alana.
The pair met while earning their PhDs at Baylor College of Medicine and joined OMRF from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, where both were faculty members. At OMRF, they work closely with physicians at the University of Oklahoma’s Stephenson Cancer Center, where they also serve as members of the cancer biology research program.
After acquiring a sample of a patient’s tumor, the Welms implant portions of it into mice hoping to generate a mouse model of that patient’s tumor. This gives them the opportunity to test different therapies against hat person’s tumor and to pinpoint the one with the greatest chance of success.
“Instead of the standard ‘sledgehammer’ approach of trying various drugs until one might work, this method takes the individual tumor’s unique biology into consideration,” said Alana. The work has generated significant research support from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and, most recently, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. But it’s just part of their research at OMRF.
Metastasis, or spread, of cancer has long puzzled scientists and physicians. Why do cancers sometimes recur decades later? Where have they been all this time?
Alana’s lab identified a pathway that tumors hijack, causing suppression of the immune system and allowing tumor cells to “hide” in the body. They have found a way to block a particular protein in the pathway – and use the immune system to kill the tumor cells.
“You have to do it when the tumor is very, very tiny,” said Alana. “We’re going to try to use this new drug to block the protein’s activity so the body has a better immune response to any tumor cells that might be hiding out in the body. Right now, about 30 percent of breast cancers become fatal. We want to improve those odds.”
Bryan is searching for new therapeutics for breast cancer. Using cancerous cells removed from patients, his team tests the effects of a variety of compounds, many of them produced by the natural world. When they identify one that appears potent, they dig deeper to pinpoint the molecular pathways being targeted by the compound.
“We found a new compound similar to one made by a sea sponge that has excellent anti-cancer activity and almost no observed toxicity,” said Bryan. “We are now studying why the compound kills breast cancer cells but leaves healthy cells alone and whether it can be developed into a drug.”
The Welms’ notions call current treatment strategies into question, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. And that, he said, is good.
“We look for people with big ideas, novel ideas. The Welms ask profound questions. They’re on a course to make a real difference in what we know about cancer and the way we treat it.”