"Each cancer is a world," said Carla Finkielstein, associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science (COS). "They all need different strategies and different approaches."
In the fight against cancer—an extensive war, waged on many fronts and dependent on an ever-shifting supply of resources—Virginia Tech faculty, students, and alumni fill the ranks.
Virginia Tech faculty members investigate not only potentially groundbreaking treatments, but also the biological mechanisms that help explain why and how cancer occurs. Often, their work begins with intellectual curiosity and a fascination with physiology, cellular biology, and more. In turn, their discoveries have enormous potential for real-world application. Published in scientific journals and textbooks, the findings contribute to the world's cancer knowledge and act as a foundation for future scientists. With colleagues from Tech and around the world, the researchers share information and collaborate. Associate Professor Rafael Davalos, for example, provides technical expertise and devices that often complement the work of others.
While cancer research at the cellular level can feel only theoretical, veterinary medicine offers a bridge of sorts, providing foundational knowledge for those fighting cancer in animals and humans.
John Rossmeisl (M.S. veterinary medical science '03), associate professor of small animal clinical sciences in the vet med college, studies cancer in dogs whose tumors are closer in size and molecular and genetic heterogeneity to those in humans than are the tumors in rodents, which many researchers study.
"A mouse tumor may be 2 millimeters by 2 millimeters, but then you have to adapt it to humans, who may have tumors measuring 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters," Rossmeisl said.
Both Rossmeisl and Timothy Fan (biochemistry and nutrition '91, D.V.M. '95), an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are collaborators on human trials with cancer treatments that originated in dogs.
Fan is recognized for his work with canine osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and pain management for animals suffering from it. Like Rossmeisl, Fan's collaborators often partner with him to take treatments developed in rodents to the next level. Making the leap from discovery toward application, Fan is now investigating a drug being tested in human clinical trials in Chicago.
"It's very unusual for a small molecule or novel therapeutic approach that originates from a scientific investigator to move to a successful, new drug application and phase I clinical trial," Fan said. "Most agents making that path come from 'Big Pharma,' or large pharmaceutical corporations."
Similarly, Rossmeisl's work with Associate Professor Rafael Davalos on irreversible electroporation, a technology that uses electrical fields to precisely target tumors, has been commercially licensed, and their findings are being developed ahead of human clinical trials.
Before the clinical trials, animal research, and cellular-level investigations, there is the matter of funding. As director of the American Cancer Society's (ACS) Preclinical and Translational Cancer Research program in the Extramural Research and Training Department, William Phelps (M.S. botany '80) coordinates committees of experts who weigh which grant applications to support.
"My job is to help make the best decisions to put money into the most-innovative and promising areas of cancer research," Phelps said.
Ultimately, only 10 percent of the applications receive ACS funding, but Phelps provides guidance to unselected applicants to help them win funding from other sources, such as the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, he plays a role in ACS fundraising, traveling around the country to share with donors how their money will be used.
Phelps' duties afford him a broad perspective on the fight against cancer. "Anybody engaged in a research enterprise has to understand that it is mostly an incremental industry. You're taking what someone has found and trying to incrementally learn something new. It's going to be fraught with failure, but that's the way you learn. One success comes out of 10 failures," Phelps said.
Still, those rare successes stack up to make progress. Since 1991, cancer mortality rates have fallen about 1 percent per year. That's not because of any one factor, Phelps said, but from many: a decrease in the number of people smoking, advances in medicine and treatment, and substantial progress in fighting particular types of cancers.
"Take childhood leukemia," Phelps said. "Ninety percent of kids less than four years old will be cured. That number didn't start out at 90 percent. It started much lower, but over the years, we have incrementally improved the survival and cure rates. It wasn't one thing, but the accumulation of thousands of studies that got us to a great success rate."
There is also rapid development in immune therapies for cancers like melanoma. "We got there because people have been unsuccessful with immune therapy for decades," Phelps said. "They'd try something, [it wouldn't] work. Try something else, going back and figuring out, 'Why did it fail?' That led to successes today."
Research grants don't grow on trees, of course. Grassroots efforts such as Relay For Life—the top money-generating event for ACS—provide a financial foundation for groundbreaking research.
For six years in a row, Virginia Tech has hosted the world's largest, most-successful collegiate Relay for Life. Since 2009, Hokie students have raised more than half a million dollars each year. This year, the event attracted more than 8,000 participants on the way to exceeding $500,000 once again. Since Tech's relay efforts began in 2000, Virginia Tech has raised $4.8 million for cancer research.
"It takes at least $100,000 to fund an ACS grant," said Emily McCloud (mathematics '15), the 2015 event director who will return to campus in the fall as a graduate student. "Virginia Tech is proud to say we can fund five grants each year."