By: Jamie Stanford, Ph.D.
Susan G. Komen has funded over $135 million in research grants for young investigators. These research dollars are vital as funding for scientific research from the U.S. government becomes more limited, cut by more than $1 billion in the past 4 years. Young investigators are some of the hardest hit by funding cuts. In 2014, the National Cancer Institute funded less than one third of the grant applications submitted by young investigators. Taking on novel research ideas and working with fewer resources and years of experience, young investigators typically have lower success rates than senior investigators. Therefore, many are turning to non-government funding agencies like Susan G. Komen to jump-start their careers. To address this issue, Komen has dedicated itself to ‘Sustaining Progress in Cancer Research’ by funding nearly $16 million for young investigators alone in 2014.
Dr. Bisrat Debeb is just one of hundreds of young investigators whose careers were launched from Komen research funding. As a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Wendy Woodward, Dr. Debeb’s Komen-funded project focused on understanding how small pieces of RNA (ribonucleic acid), called microRNAs, affect breast cancer metastasis to the brain. Under this fellowship, his training and successful results became the foundation for his career.
During his fellowship, Dr. Debeb and his Mentor, Dr. Woodward, developed new models of brain metastasis and discovered that when breast cancer cells express a microRNA called miR-141, they are more likely to spread (metastasize) to the brain. Likewise, reducing levels of miR-141 prevented breast cancer cells from spreading to the brain. Furthermore, they found that high levels of miR-141 in patient’s blood were associated with poor brain metastasis-free survival and low overall survival.
The studies indicate that miR-141 levels in a patient’s blood could be used to monitor cancer progression in patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and that reducing levels of miR-141 could help prevent metastatic spread to the brain.
Now, in his role as Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Debeb’s research is a continuation of this Komen-funded project. His studies focus on evaluating the therapeutic benefit of reducing miR-141 levels in order to prevent brain metastasis. Dr. Debeb and his colleagues have also begun to more specifically unveil how miR-141 causes breast cancer to spread to the brain.
Dr. Debeb’s contributions to research will bring more hope and options for patients, and his success, which began with data generated from a Komen-funded grant, has opened doors professionally. In fact, he was recently granted the highly competitive National Institute of Health Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award. He is also the recipient of the first Junior Investigator Grant from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Network Foundation. With this new funding, Dr. Debeb will continue to expand upon the project he developed as a Komen postdoctoral trainee. The Komen Postdoctoral Fellowship award “…has been a critical component for my career development and has laid a solid foundation for establishing myself as an independent investigator in the field of breast cancer,” says Dr. Debeb.
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