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Of dogs and women

Dickerson with her dog Kiko.

Masonic Scholar Erin Dickerson, Ph.D., bridges veterinary medicine and cancer research

Tucked into a lab on the Masonic Cancer Research Building’s fifth floor, Erin Dickerson, Ph.D., spends her days investigating potential new treatments for ovarian cancer—using tumor cells from dogs being treated at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Straddling the worlds of veterinary medicine and human cancer research, Dickerson is developing a therapy that targets cancer stem cells—thought to be the source of tumor generation and regeneration— in hemangiosarcoma, a cancer common in dogs that also occurs in humans. Results from her studies could also be applied to human ovarian cancer.

“Working with dogs just makes sense,” says Dickerson, who loves animals and once considered becoming a vet. “They have similar immune systems, we share an environment, and some diseases are very similar in dogs and humans.”

Dickerson came to the University as an assistant professor of oncology and comparative medicine in late 2009. “My research focus has been drug delivery,” she says. “If we can overcome resistance to therapy, that would be huge.”

Indeed: 10 years ago, late-stage ovarian cancer survival rates were about 25 percent; a decade later, the rate has improved, but not fast enough for Dickerson.

“Going from a 25- to a 30- to 40-percent survival rate in 10 years is not the kind of progress we want to make,” she says with steely determination.

Dickerson got some welcome support for her research when she was named a Masonic Scholar last year. “The one-year appointment came with funds that supported my work in general,” she explains, “so I could continue my research without having to focus on just one aspect.”

Still, the work remains challenging, and she has learned to deal with defeat. “But then we run a small experiment and discover that, yes!, it worked. And that’s what keeps us going day to day.”

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