MEET OUR SCIENTISTS
HERA is committed to funding annual “Outside-The-Box” research grants. By supporting promising M.D’s, Ph.D’s, and post-Docs with innovative ideas, HERA seeks to both nurture the new approaches, and retain the talented scientists choosing to make a career of fighting ovarian cancer.
RONI Nitecki, MD
Lyndsey Crump, PHD
Gamze bildik elcik, PHD
Dr. Roni Nitecki, MD, is a true advocate for women. As a gynecologic oncology fellow at MD Anderson, Dr. Nitecki has worked on projects in hereditary ovarian cancer, surgical management after primary treatment for ovarian cancer, fertility-sparing surgery in gynecologic malignancies, and employment outcomes in gynecologic cancer survivors. With her HERA award, Dr. Nitecki will further HERA’s goals of early detection and prevention of ovarian cancer by facilitating genetic testing of at-risk relatives of patients with BRCA 1/2 mutations. Genetic testing can reduce breast and ovarian cancer cases in at-risk relatives by 20% and 55%, respectively, however, few relatives complete the testing. Currently, the medical system relies on patients to contact their relatives to encourage them to get testing, which has led to suboptimal genetic services. In Dr. Nitecki’s study, the first-degree relatives will receive a telephone call, educational video, an online platform to order free mailed saliva kits, and post-test counseling. Her research has the chance to save lives by stimulating a paradigm shift in the medical community to recognize the importance of testing and take on the responsibility for hereditary ovarian cancers like BRCA1/2.
A post-doctoral fellow at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is the recipient of our Angelina Merenda O'Bar Grant for her work targeting TDO2/KYN-mediated activation of an immune-suppressive tumor microenvironment in ovarian cancer. The ability of ovarian cancer cells to avoid detection by a woman’s natural immune system significantly increases the morbidity of the disease, and recent immune-based therapeutic options have proven to be ineffective against ovarian tumors. She found that inflammation (an immune response) causes ovarian cancer cells to alter their metabolism, suppressing the body’s ability to recognize and fight the cancer. A specific protein found in the tumor cells, Tryptophan 2,3-Dioxygenase (TDO2,) increases the abundance of an oncometabolite, a metabolic byproduct that suppresses the effectiveness of the immune response. By using newly developed drugs that interfere with the activity of this particular enzyme, she hopes to improve the immune system function to recognize and destroy tumor cells. This work will determine which immune cells are affected by TDO2 inhibition, and how they can be re-programmed to attack ovarian cancer cells.
Dr. Gamze Bildik Elcik is the recipient of the Joyce Marsh Grant. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Translational Multi-Disciplinary Research Program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Her research focus is to understand how a gene called “KRAS” promotes low-grade ovarian cancer (LGSOC) growth and find an effective way to inhibit mutant KRAS activity. Her recent study found that a protein called “DIRAS3” has KRAS inhibitory functions. LGSOC harboring mutant KRAS often has high basal autophagy. Autophagy or “self-eating” can enable cancer cells to survive under nutrient-restrictive conditions. She is currently working on combining DIRAS3 with autophagy inhibitors to effectively block KRAS-driven tumor growth. Dr. Bildik Elcik’s research should improve our understanding of the mechanism in KRAS-driven cancers and provide potential therapeutic approaches for personalized treatment of LGSOC, which are often resistant to conventional chemotherapy.
Naveen Kumar Tangudu, phd
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynecological cancer in the US with an estimated 21,410 new diagnoses and 13,770 deaths in 2021 alone. The 5-year survival-rate of ovarian cancer patients is a dismal 25–35%. Despite an initial response to therapy, most patients develop a recurrent and chemo resistant disease, making them less amenable to standard-of-care treatments. In certain patients, an identifiable gene mutation leads to increased levels of iron nutrients, which is critical for the start and advancement of ovarian tumors. Currently, there are medical trials studying the efficacy of drugs designed to destroy metabolically altered cells. Our goal is to increase the number of FDA approved drugs, specifically small molecule inhibitors, which can destroy iron dependent cells. Findings from this study will hopefully provide alternate treatments, and improvement in quality of life for this difficult to treat subset of patients.
HUdA ISSA ATIYA, PHD
Ovarian clear cell carcinoma (OCCC) is one of the deadliest, most treatment-resistant gynecologic cancers. This is primarily due to its unique cell of origin within endometriosis, a chronic inflammatory condition that affects 6-10% of reproductive-aged women in the U.S. The study will examine the contributions of endometriosis tissue in supporting the growth of OCCC through iron regulation. Iron is critical for cancer cell growth and progression, however, it is highly reactive, and thus can be toxic. While whole body iron regulation is well understood, much less is known regarding the local control of iron homeostasis in cancer. The goal of this work is to understand how endometriosis regulates cancer cell iron levels, and to capitalize on this function as an “Achilles' heel” which can be exploited as a novel treatment option.
WonJae Lee, PHD
Recipient of the Susan von Salis grant, the ultimate goal of Dr. Lee’s postdoctoral fellowship at the MD Anderson Cancer Center is to discover more effective therapies for ovarian cancer. Dr. Lee’s research focuses on identifying why this deadly cancer preferentially spreads to the omentum, a fat tissue connected to the stomach. Dr. Lee and colleagues recently discovered that inflammatory cells acting as first responders to infection and cancer mobilize into the omentum prior to metastasis. Using this information, he will study and evaluate whether known anti-inflammatory drugs could be repurposed for stopping metastasis to the omentum. Dr. Lee’s work could potentially accelerate the development of new ovarian cancer therapies in a timely and cost‐effective manner.
SUKH Makhnoon, PHD, MS
Recipient of the Denise Zackman grant, she is a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Prevention Research Training Program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Makhnoon's focus is on genetic testing of ovarian cancer. Her project aims to alleviate disparities involving uncertain genetic results in diverse patient populations at multiple hospitals and health systems across the US. Uncertain genetic results are detected at disproportionately higher rates in tests performed in ethnic minorities. Another goal of Dr. Makhnoon's is to improve communications between health care providers (gynecologic oncologists and genetic counselors) and patients of ethnic minorities to reduce these disparities. Her findings will contribute to the much-needed practice guidelines around these issues.
HAN HSUAN Fu, PHD
Most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed only after tumor has spread into the peritoneal cavity. Although it is possible to achieve a state of minimal residual disease (MRD) with surgery followed by chemotherapy, more than three quarters of these women will still relapse and die of their disease. Therapies to convert the MRD state into a cure of ovarian cancer are urgently needed. The studies proposed here are designed to be translated immediately into a clinical trial of cyclophosphamide, ibrutinib, and NEDLI for women with stage III or IV ovarian cancer who achieve MRD following surgery and 6 cycles of carboplatinum plus taxol chemotherapy.
Of the scientific researchers HERA has funded since 2002, 86% of them have remained in the field of ovarian cancer.
Retaining these researchers is critical to advancing ovarian cancer research.
JOYCE MARSH GRANT
Joyce was an extraordinary woman. Not just in my view as my wife, but as a mother to her two daughters, and as a loving, uncommonly kind and patient presence to all. Her profession was secretary to the executive of a national health care organization, but arts and crafts was her avocation, and first love. As a master seamstress and craftswoman, she spent untold hours creating items that were in high demand at art fairs and craft shops. She loved American Primitives, or “early attic” as she called them. She joked that she got hooked back in the day when we couldn’t afford fancy furnishings. By the time we could afford the newer styles, we realized it wasn’t as well built as the old stuff, or nearly as conversation-provoking at house gatherings. Our home is still filled with the early furniture. It’s stout, comfortable, lounging is encouraged, and nobody objects to feet up on it. And guess what? That sturdy old stuff is back in demand and hard to find these days-and isn’t cheap! Maybe we inadvertently did good. That’ll be up to the heirs to find out. Fifty years Joyce and I were together. It dizzies the mind thinking how fast those years went. For us, the old saying about time and having fun couldn’t have been truer. I’m sometimes asked if there are any regrets. The only one is losing her. Otherwise, the answer is no. It’s the memories that count, and those are forever.
-Stan Marsh, husband of late Joyce Marsh
Marilyn "Rexy" Usinowicz GRANT
Beauty, dignity, grace, courage, determination, and inspiration describe Marilyn Usinowicz, aka "Rexy." Born in N.J., she grew up with a love of the water, and from a very early age was swimming at The Point in Pompton Lake, Double Trouble in Toms River, and off her father's hunting island in Barnegat Bay. Marilyn married her high-school sweetheart, Paul Usinowicz; and has two daughters and two granddaughters (the youngest of whom she unfortunately never had the chance to meet.) Marilyn was a strong supporter in women being their own persons, and became a "Mom" to not only her daughters, but to many of their friends in that she listened to their needs and issues and was a mentor to many. When confronted by fourth stage ovarian cancer in 1998, Marilyn faced the challenges of multiple surgeries and treatments by taking to the water again, teaching deep-water aerobic classes at several local rec-centers. Marilyn inspired her students and others by her determination to fight as long as possible by being back in the pool, leading demanding classes, shortly after major surgery or while undergoing the multiple regimens of chemotherapy that she had. Marilyn also helped others who had gynecological cancers through her involvement as a charter member of the James Women with Gynecological Cancers support group. Marilyn was like the matriarch of the group, as she used her experiences and knowledge of the impacts on women's lives of these cancers to mentor especially the younger women challenged by these cancers. Marilyn lived her life with dignity. She unselfishly gave of herself to help others. She faced a formidable challenge in her cancer fights, and inspired many by her courage in fighting an unbeatable foe. After her death in October 2009, "Rexy" returned to the water as part of an Eternal Reefs project, which incorporates her ashes into a reef structure that provides habitat for sea creatures.
-Mr. Usinowicz, husband of late Marilyn Usinowicz