Three for Team Science

Three for Team Science

As part of its broader strategic vision, The Wistar Institute is seeking a few good women and men to augment its faculty. The object is to bolster Wistar’s capacity for innovative science by strategically recruiting new faculty whose skills will complement those of Wistar’s current roster of scientists. These recruitment efforts are part of Wistar’s focus on “team science,” and its implementation is already well under way. In the last issue of Focus, Wistar’s new Cancer Center Director and Chief Scientific Officer, Dario Altieri, M.D., defined team science as the way forward for the Institute (see “Destination Wistar,” Focus, Winter 2011). Indeed, $10 million of the new capital campaign will be used to recruit scientists whose skills will help diversify Wistar’s faculty, matching the Institute’s current research strengths with new and complementary expertise in emerging fields of discovery. 

This year, Wistar has added three new members to the Cancer Center’s Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program. The recruitment of Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., and Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D., as assistant professors will specifically strengthen Wistar’s melanoma research efforts. Biostatistician Qin Liu, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor, will enhance Wistar research overall by supporting the statistical analysis of complex sets of research data. 

Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D.; Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D.; Qin Liu, M.D., Ph.D.

Team Science in Action

If you need an example of what team science might look like in practice, you need look no further than Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center (MRC), introduced in 2010. The center brings together cancer biologists with different scientific perspectives to collaborate on a common topic, namely the aggressive nature of melanoma. As the newest members of the MRC team, Jessie Villanueva and Ashani “Ashi” Weeraratna add their own unique skills to the challenge of creating new melanoma therapies. 

Villanueva is no stranger to the MRC. She has been a member of the laboratory of Wistar researcher Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., since 2006, starting as a postdoctoral fellow then taking on a position as staff scientist. 

Prior to Wistar, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where she investigated the biology related to a mutation in the BRAF gene, which has been discovered to be present in half of all cases of melanoma.  

At Wistar, Villanueva’s work has demonstrated that recently developed BRAF inhibitors are, at best, transient in their tumor-killing effectiveness. In a 2010 article published in the journal Cancer Cell, she presented findings that show how tumor cells are able to adapt to such inhibitors and find a way to bypass the effects of the drug. One of the goals of the Villanueva laboratory at Wistar will be to identify new drug targets and develop therapeutic strategies to overcome drug resistance in melanoma.

Weeraratna comes to Wistar from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health. Her research explores both the nature of aggressive melanoma and the relationship between cancer and aging. 

The progression of melanoma from early to late stage involves a series of chemical signaling changes within the cell, often described in terms of “pathways,” as these signals come in the form of a chain of chemical interactions. In particular, Weeraratna focuses on the Wnt gene and its associated signaling pathway. She seeks to learn how alterations to this pathway can lead to changes in how malignant cells multiply, move throughout the body, and invade other cells. 

Weeraratna is also extremely interested in exploring how age affects tumor malignancy. For example, elderly people are much more likely to develop melanoma (and fare worse) than most other people. This could be due to a number of factors, such as age-related deficiencies in the immune system, but it may also be due to changes in the aging tumor microenvironment. Using melanoma cells and both young and old normal skin cells as a model, Weeraratna is trying to unravel just what these changes may be and how they affect tumor progression.

“We recruited Dr. Weeraratna not only on the strength of her research, but also on how well her expertise bolsters our existing research base,” said Altieri.  “Both melanoma and the biological basis of aging are acknowledged Wistar strengths, and we feel her insight into these subjects will be of tremendous value to her colleagues.” 

The Numbers Game

In terms of being a team player, it is likely that few recruits will have as much effect across the Institute as Qin Liu. Liu’s expertise is in the field of biostatistics — the statistical analysis of the various data generated from modern biological laboratories, as well as data from clinical and population studies. It is a topic of immense importance, both to Wistar and medical science as a whole, allowing scientists to find correlations between genes, disease and individual patient health in ways that will inform physicians in treating cancer and other diseases. 

Liu joins Wistar from her position on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. At Wistar, she is a member of the Center for Systems and Computational Biology, an established team of experts with fields complementary in their ability to process large swaths of data. 

Her work will support intra-institutional collaborations at all academic levels, enabling scientists to find correlations between genes, disease, and individual patient health.

 “The way forward now is to build teams of investigators with widely different sets of knowledge and expertise,” said Altieri. “We want our scientists to feel the complete freedom of discovery and to pursue their ideas, of course, but the challenge is that we must work together.”