Center News

Kuni Scholar award paves way for breakthrough research

Medical scientist Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels, working to defeat ovarian cancer, is among three Pacific Northwest scientists in the inaugural class of Kuni Scholars

July 11, 2011
Dr. Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels

“With the generous support of the Kuni Foundation, my colleagues and I aim to translate significant research discoveries into effective and safe treatments for patients suffering from ovarian cancer and other malignancies,” said Dr. Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels.

Photo by Dean Forbes

Dr. Maria Corinna Palanca-Wessels is one step closer to her goal of making ovarian tumors more susceptible to chemotherapy thanks to a two-year, $200,000 award from the Wayne D. Kuni and Joan E. Kuni Foundation of Vancouver, Wash., and the Kuni family (through the 3725 Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation).
 
Palanca-Wessels is among three promising cancer researchers in the Pacific Northwest in the inaugural class of Kuni Scholars.

“With the generous support of the Kuni Foundation, my colleagues and I aim to translate significant research discoveries into effective and safe treatments for patients suffering from ovarian cancer and other malignancies,” said Palanca-Wessels, a research associate in the Clinical Research Division laboratory of Dr. Oliver Press.

“Corinna is an exceptionally well-qualified medical scientist with an exciting research future who has chosen a highly promising research project that is likely to lead to innovations in the treatment of ovarian cancer and other malignancies,” Press said.

The motivation to fight a deadly disease

Palanca-Wessels’ fascination with medicine began during a first-year high school biology course. “Intellectual curiosity about the intricacies of cells, genes and DNA played a large part, but it became personal when my aunt, my sole relative in the United States who housed my family after our emigration from the Philippines, tragically succumbed to advanced-stage ovarian cancer,” she said.

By the time a woman experiences symptoms of ovarian cancer, her tumor often has spread throughout the abdomen and the prognosis is grim, which is why ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynecologic malignancy in the U.S. Despite intensive research efforts, only 30 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive more than five years.

Ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to treat because the cancer cells can develop a resistance to therapeutic drugs by overproducing proteins that thwart their curative effects. These proteins act to protect the tumors, allowing them to survive and re-emerge later.

Groundbreaking, personalized approach could fight many cancers 

“Researchers have found that biological molecules, called short interfering RNAs (siRNAs), can silence specific genes. I plan to evaluate a subset of these siRNAs to determine whether they can block an ovarian tumor’s dangerous ‘survival proteins’ and thus increase the positive effects of the chemotherapy drugs,” she said.

Palanca-Wessels’ long-term goal is to discover and develop a cure for ovarian cancer by introducing siRNAs directly into a woman’s ovarian tumor cells using unique tumor-targeted siRNA carriers. “Our approach would be groundbreaking and could be individualized for a patient’s unique tumor profile. This approach holds great promise to provide a personalized therapy not only for ovarian cancer patients but for people with lymphoma, lung, colon or other cancers.”

New support for rising researchers

The Kuni Foundation and the Kuni family (through the Oregon Community Foundation) created the Kuni Scholars Program this year. The program aims to further the careers of talented young investigators in the field of clinical cancer research.

“We want to encourage and nurture the rising stars in the field of cancer research,” said Carolyn W. Miller, president of the Kuni Foundation. “We foresee today’s young scientists contributing to medical breakthroughs that will benefit cancer patients for generations to come.”

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.