Talk to Paula Whittington ’01, biological sciences, and you might not guess she’s a researcher who’s getting potentially life-saving results. Modest and soft-spoken, the former Meyerhoff Scholar recently published the findings from experiments that could help thousands of women with breast cancer.
In her research, Whittington has shown that a form of vaccination using DNA can treat breast cancers that are resistant to other drugs. Her research was done on mice, but if the vaccine works similarly in people, it could give hope to women whose cancers either did not shrink when treated, or whose cancers have come back despite initial treatment success.
Whittington did that research at Wayne State University, where she is a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program. She published it along with her co-workers and her advisor, Wei-Zen Wei, in September in the journal Cancer Research. Whittington defended her dissertation in late 2007 and is now finishing her medical degree – which she hopes to complete in 2010.
The joy in discovery is not just in the brainstorming, says Whittington, but in the process of testing and winnowing that accompanies it.
“I like the creative aspect of research, the idea of coming up with something and then testing it to prove it right or wrong. Then it’s really cool that you might actually see a benefit in patients,” she says. “Even just the hope of it is really cool.”
Whittington already has impressed other scientists with her persistence and intelligence. “She’s a very hard worker,” says Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg, a professor of biological science at UMBC. “She just keeps trying and going for things. She’s smart and things work out for her.”
Whittington did research as an undergraduate in the laboratory of Angela Brodie, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center. Brodie says that Whittington “had a spark about her” and impressed her by keeping in touch even after finishing her laboratory work.
“Paula has a lively, thinking mind,” agrees her dissertation adviser, Wei. “She has a lot of interesting ideas.”
It was during her work in Wei’s laboratory that Whittington decided to take a cancer vaccine that her adviser has been working on since 1996 and see whether it works for tumors that are resistant to other treatments.
The vaccine is simply DNA injected into a muscle. The cells of the organism – mouse or human – then go to work making the protein encoded by the DNA, thereby alerting the immune system to the protein. Since it is the same protein that is overproduced by cancer cells, the organism’s immune system then attacks any cells that have that protein.
About a quarter of breast cancers produce too much of a protein called Her2, which instructs the cancer cells to grow. Tumors that produce Her2 grow and spread more quickly than do other breast cancers, and patients with so-called Her2-positive tumors tend to die sooner.
Their best treatment option is a drug called Herceptin, which shuts down the Her2 protein. But Herceptin works for only a small fraction of Her2-positive tumors – and even those tumors that do shrink sometimes come back after the cancer cells become resistant to the treatment.
So Whittington, Wei, and their co-workers were delighted to discover that a DNA vaccine saved mice that had breast-cancer cells injected into their sides, regardless of whether the cells were resistant to other therapies.
Wei’s vaccine has already undergone one small clinical trial, performed by researchers in Sweden, to test its safety. It had no adverse effects, Wei says. “They are planning another trial as we speak.”
But Whittington has moved on – for now – to patient care in medical school. As she learns about internal medicine, surgery, and other specialties, she now ponders her future options.
“There are an infinite number of paths you can take,” she says. “Strictly clinical? Strictly research? Both? Which field?”
Regardless, she’s not likely to lose touch with faculty members that have discussed her research with her, mentored her, or taught her. Good at making scientific allies, Whittington keeps them abreast of her work, even from afar.
“I want them to know how I’m doing and that I’m working really hard,” she says. “As appreciation for them taking the time to invest in me.”