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Funding from Sparboe endowed chair allows ovarian cancer research to flourish

University of Minnesota cancer biologist Sundaram Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., and his colleagues are working on a way to stop ovarian cancer from spreading.

Shirley Sparboe

For years they’ve been investigating the role of nontoxic, naturally occurring protein fragments and how they interact with ovarian tumor cells. Ramakrishnan’s team recently has found a way to inhibit the growth of blood vessels and keep tumors from growing larger.

“Not only would it inhibit tumor growth, it would also prevent relapse of the disease,” Ramakrishnan says.

These results, from mouse studies, were so encouraging that the team is preparing to try the therapy in a phase I clinical trial to be led by Peter Argenta, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health. Ramakrishnan says the trial could begin within a year after receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

This leap forward in research was supported in part by funds from the Shirley A. Sparboe Chair in Women’s Cancer Research, which Ramakrishnan holds. The late Robert Sparboe established the chair in 1992 in memory of his wife, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989.

“He was interested in doing what small part he could to help find a cure for this terrible disease,” says Beth Schnell, Robert and Shirley Sparboe’s daughter.

Shirley Sparboe was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1983. Under the care of former Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology head Konald Prem, M.D., she lived another five years and seven months.

“During that time, she became a grandmother twice—those were my two daughters,” Schnell says. “She certainly made an effort to live as normal a life as her health would allow.”

Schnell believes that the endowed research fund in her mother’s name is a great way to honor her life and hopes that other women with ovarian cancer will someday benefit from the research it supports.

“Research is the only way we will find answers,” Schnell says. “And without funding, the research can’t be done.”

In the next five years, Ramakrishnan and his colleagues hope to characterize ovarian cancer stem cells—these self-renewing cells make up less than 0.5 percent of tumors but are responsible for initiating tumors and causing relapses—in hopes of stopping cancer’s spread.

His team also is working on a cancer vaccine using modified tumor cells to stimulate a patient’s own body to reject leftover tumor cells after surgery or chemotherapy.

Sundaram Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., wants to know why cancer stem cells can survive and even thrive in low-oxygen, or hypoxic, areas to aid cancer's growth, when other types of cells cannot. (Image courtesy of Sundaram Ramakrishnan, Ph.D.)

“We are so pleased that the Shirley A. Sparboe Chair inWomen’s Cancer Research is playing such a role in the funding of this important research by Dr. Ramakrishnan,” Schnell says. “Ovarian cancer is frightening because it is so hard to detect. Hopefully this research will give future generations of women a stronger chance to win in the battle against this mighty disease.”

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