The Wistar Institute Promotes Jessie Villanueva to Assistant Professor

The Wistar Institute Promotes Jessie Villanueva to Assistant Professor

July 10, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - The Wistar Institute has appointed Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D., as assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program of the Institute’s Cancer Center. Villanueva had 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.

Her research explores the development and use of targeted therapies against melanoma, and her laboratory will also become a part of The Wistar Institute Melanoma Research Center, which was begun in 2010.

“Dr. Villanueva possesses the talent and intellect we need to propel laboratory discoveries into practical, clinical applications,” said Wistar President and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, M.D. “Jessie is a superb scientist with a remarkable clarity of both thought and vision, and she will make a fine addition to the Wistar faculty." 

Villanueva made her first steps into a scientific career as an undergraduate research assistant at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in her native Peru, where she would receive her Bachelor of Science degree. Following graduation, she moved to Pennsylvania to become a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She then enrolled in the graduate program at University of Miami School of Medicine where she began her dissertation studies on the role of adhesion and signaling pathways in regulating the cell cycle—work with great relevance to the part these pathways play in the development of cancer.

In 2003, she earned a Ph.D. in Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology. She then pursued postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. There, she began to further investigate the role of a mutation in the BRAF gene that has been discovered to be present in half of all cases of melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer whose rates have climbed steadily in recent years. The mutant BRAF turns on a signaling pathway that drives cell division and, tumor formation.

At Wistar, Villanueva's work has demonstrated that recently developed RAF 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 RAF 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.

Her work will speak to one of the more intractable problems of treating advanced cancer, the tumor cell’s ability to resist therapeutics. “Drug resistance is possibly the biggest hurdle we have in curing metastatic melanoma,” said Herlyn. “With the tools at our disposal and keen minds like Dr. Villanueva’s, we know have the ability to develop strategies that will overwhelm melanoma, killing cells before they have the chance to adapt. It is a hopeful and exciting time.”

The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, Wistar has long held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible. The Wistar Institute: Today’s Discoveries – Tomorrow’s Cures. On the Web at Wistar.org.