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Research Update

By Manish Patankar, PhD

UW Obstretics and Gynecology

What are the projects you’re working on with WOCA funds?

WOCA funding has supported multiple research projects in the last several years. One of particular note, where we have had a lot of success, is a project that began with isolating different compounds from ginger. We found that some extracts from ginger roots had anti-cancer activity, but the extracts we could get from grocery store ginger roots were fairly impure.

We looked for something more pharmacological that would be safe for use in the clinic, that looked like the molecules that we found in the ginger extracts. And after a lot of work, we found the FDA-approved antimalarial drug atovaquone, and we set out to see if it could be used as an anticancer agent, especially in ovarian cancer.

WOCA seed funds helped us study atovaquone, and helped us build a collaboration with Dr. Lisa Barriolhet. Dr. Barroilhet proposed a clinical trial for the drug. In May 2020, we were notified by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that Dr. Barroilhet was awarded an R01 grant – a large, five-year research grant for the project "Repurposing Atovaquone for the Prevention of Ovarian Cancer." The WOCA grant was critical in getting the initial data we needed to apply for this larger grant.

Support from WOCA also started an ongoing project looking at markers for ovarian cancer, in the hopes of developing a test for the disease. CA 125 is a biomarker that is over-expressed in some types of cancer, including ovarian cancer. We published a paper on a new way of detecting it many years ago, and a group at Harvard Medical School picked it up. We started a collaboration with them working on developing a new test for ovarian cancer, and we have NIH funding for that project, too. Similarly, we would not have gotten the preliminary data, or built a partnership with the group at Harvard, or gotten the NIH grant without funding from WOCA.

The seed funding from WOCA creates a domino effect in many ways. We can use the data from WOCA projects to help build partnerships and apply for larger grants, which is critical to moving ovarian cancer research forward. These grants are absolutely amazing.

How has WOCA helped you build important research partnerships?

When I first joined the UW Department of Ob-Gyn, my lab and one other were the only two research groups working on ovarian cancer on campus. Now, there are labs in Biomedical Engineering, labs in our Advanced Cell Therapy unit also working on ovarian cancer. More recently, we’ve started working with the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center to develop some models for ovarian cancer, which have a good chance of earning some NIH funding.

This allows us to bring in many different perspectives as we look at how to detect and treat the disease. When I work with the labs in bioengineering, they bring in engineering concepts that I would never know about, and together we can see how their technologies could be applied to cancer research.

By bringing these groups together, we develop new ideas and concepts that hopefully will lead to therapeutics or diagnostic products that we can use for clinical management of ovarian cancer. All of the research we do for the most part is translational research, highly applicable to the clinic. We can’t guarantee success or guarantee that any project will be translated to the clinic right away, because it’s a long process. But we are working on it, and we appreciate all the supporters of WOCA for all their help.

What’s the best part of your job?

One of the best parts of my job is being at UW-Madison, working in such a collaborative place where I can learn so much every day. The other part is the friendships I have developed in the ovarian cancer community over the years. I really appreciate the supporters and survivors who come to lab visits, share their stories and ask questions. I’m not a physician, so those visits are my real patient contact, and I am inspired and informed by everyone who joins for a tour. I am very grateful for the friendship and support of WOCA and the Wisconsin ovarian cancer community.

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