2012 Sean Patrick Recipients
2012 Sean Patrick Recipients

2012 Recipients of the Sean Patrick Multidisciplinary Collaborative Grant

HERA proudly awarded the 2012 Sean Patrick Multidisciplinary Collaborative Grant to Carrie Rinker-Schaeffer, PhD (University of Chicago) and Jason Shear, PhD (University of Texas at Austin) for their project, “Harnessing the power of materials science for studies of metastasis biology: Development of tunable models of ovarian cancer omental colonization.”  Dr. Rinker-Schaeffer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery with appointments in the Departments of Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Dr. Shear is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Principal Investigator in the Shear Labs.  This unique, innovative research clearly demonstrates the purpose of the grant:  two scientists with different yet complementary skills working synergistically to address the ovarian cancer problem.

Carrie Rinker-SchaefferQ:  What is the primary goal of your HERA-funded study?

A:  The overall goal of this work is to use the combined expertise of our laboratories to develop new in vitro models.  In vitro models use components of an organism that have been isolated and can be studied in a laboratory vessel.  These models are very useful for mechanism-based studies of ovarian cancer cell colonization of the omentum because they allow the investigator to precisely control the experimental conditions.

Q:  What is the omentum?  Do men have them? Why does ovarian cancer metastasize there?

A:  The omentum is a “fatty” or adipose-rich tissue that blankets the abdominal cavity.   It is often referred to as “the policeman of the abdomen” because of its many surveillance and maintenance functions.  These include: regulating fluid transport, sensing and repairing injuries, promoting new blood vessel formation (a process known as angiogenesis), fighting infection, serving as a source of stem cells, production of regulatory molecules, and storing and supplying lipids. Multiple lines of evidence suggest that ovarian cancer metastasis to the omentum is the result of the adipose-rich regions providing both a favorable and accessible microenvironment(s) for ovarian cancer survival and growth.

Jason ShearQ:  What is the role of the immune system in the omentum and metastasis? 

A:  Aunique feature of the omental adipose is the presence of immune structures known as milky spots.  Milky spots are basically collections of immune cells that surround the nests capillaries found in the adipose-rich regions.  In response to infection or presence of foreign particles, the milky spots become activated and undergo expansion to envelop the foreign bodies and/or allow for immune cells trafficking into and out of the omentum.  Data from our laboratory and others suggest that ovarian cancer cells are able to exploit this normal physiologic function and take advantage of growth-promoting functions of immune cells within milky spot structures.

Q:  Are the ovarian cancer cells “fed” by the immune cells?

A:  No they are not fed by the immune cells, however, the immune cells might provide “factors” that promote cancer cell survival and/or growth.

Q:  Why is your proposed in vitro model better than an animal model of ovarian cancer metastasis?

A:  Animal models remain the gold standard for studies of metastasis; however, they have limitations for studies aimed at understanding mechanisms of colonization. So there is a need for in vitro models that can complement, but not replace, animal models of metastasis.

Q:  What are the biggest challenges – or obstacles – in this proposed work?

A: The challenges presented are those associated with the merger of two different technologies. These include optimization of the composition and structures of the microstructures as well as the conditions for cell growth and funneling of cells into the structures.  The exciting aspect of such novel, albeit challenging work, is that our findings (both successes and failures) will be of use to the larger research community and us.

Q:  Have you collaborated together before?  What made you want to work together on this project?  Explain why forming this team will be key to your success.

A: This is our first funded collaboration.  We were inspired to work together to develop new tools and models needed for studies of metastatic colonization.  This collaboration is key as we come from very different disciplines; neither of our laboratories could pursue this work in isolation.

Click here to read about the 2011 Sean Patrick Multidisciplinary Collaborative Grant recipients.

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