Scientists at Yale School of Medicine design a virus to treat ovarian cancer

Marisa Peryer, Senior Photographer

A new Yale study showed that certain genetically modified viruses can cure ovarian cancer in mice. It may be of use in the treatment of ovarian cancer in humans.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have tested a chimeric virus — containing genes from two different viruses — that can selectively infect and kill ovarian cancer cells in mice. Their findings represent a potential breakthrough in the long-term treatment of ovarian cancer in humans. The study was published in the journal Virology on Nov. 12, two weeks after the death of the paper’s lead author Anthony Van den Pol, former professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at Yale.

“Every year, around 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which is a smaller number compared to cancer types such as breast cancer,” said Gil Mor, the scientific director of the C.S. Mott Center for Human Growth and Development at Wayne State University and a co-author of the paper. “However, unfortunately only around 4,000 of those women can survive the disease.”

The main reason behind the lethality of ovarian cancer is the lack of treatments preventing the recurrence of the disease. In 80 percent of cases, patients who respond positively to chemotherapy still experience a return of the disease, according to Mor. He explained that once the cancer comes back and begins to spread, there is little that doctors can do.

The inspiration for the study was born out of a collaboration between Van den Pol and Mor many years ago, when they worked in adjacent labs at the Yale School of Medicine. Van den Pol, a research scientist in the Neurosurgery Department, had concentrated his research on the long-term treatment of brain tumors. Mor, on the other hand, had been working on treatments for ovarian cancer. The two scientists decided to collaborate to find an alternative treatment for ovarian cancer through oncolytic viruses, which selectively infect and kill cancer cells.

In the experiment’s in vitro phase, in which the research takes place in laboratory tubes or petri dishes without a living component, researchers made a virus called Lassa-VSV in the laboratory. Lassa-VSV consists of three parts: the Lassa virus, the vesicular stomatitis virus, or VSV, and a fluorescent label to facilitate tracing, according to Nazli Albayrak, a scientist who was involved in the in vitro phase. During this phase, the team infected different ovarian cancer cell lines, eventually choosing the ones that were infected most frequently to proceed with the research. 

Then, after deciding on the cell line, the team injected tumor cells into the bodies of the mice, the paper explains. As the tumor cells began to replicate, the team then injected the Lassa-VSV virus into the tumor clusters. They observed that the virus infected the tumor cells very effectively yet did not harm the healthy cells

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Yale Medicine Board elects new female chair, four new members

Jessie Cheung, Contributing Photographer

The Yale Medicine Board has elected a new female chair and has nominated and ratified four other female faculty members.

Nita Ahuja, the current chair of the surgery department at the Yale School of Medicine and an assistant director at the Yale Cancer Center, was elected as the new chair of the board in October. The four other women appointed to the board were Michele Johnson, Marie Robert, Marietta Vazquez and Merceditas Villanueva. The appointment of these five new members increased the gender and racial equity of the 27-member board.

“A board governing practice should have racial and gender composition matching the members of the clinical practice they represent,” Margaret Bia — professor emerita of medicine and a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine, or SWIM — wrote in an email News. SWIM aims to address issues related to gender equality at the Yale School of Medicine.

According to Bia, the Yale Medicine Board, which represents Yale Medicine, has had a problem with diversity in the past. She mentioned that Paula Kavathas — professor of laboratory medicine, immunobiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology — noticed this issue a few years ago while she was serving on the board and resolved to fix it.

As stated by Kavathas, the board is composed of 18 clinical chiefs, which were almost exclusively men, and nine ad hoc chairs. When she was a member of the board, only three of the clinical chiefs and one of the ad hoc chairs were female.

“At the time, the Yale Medicine group was about 40 percent female,” Kavathas said. “But when I looked at the [board] structure, they were more than 90 percent male.”

In an effort to change the board’s composition, Kavathas emailed all the women faculty in the clinical departments to ask them if they would like to serve on the board as an ad hoc member. She then recommended the candidates to Paul Taheri, the chief executive officer of Yale Medicine, and Roberta Hines, the head of the nominating committee for the board. The following year, nearly 40 percent of the board was female.

According to Gary Desir, previous chair of the Yale Medicine Board, this year, the board has taken new initiative to increase its diversity by focusing on additional outreach.

“The idea was to reach out more broadly than before and include SWIM, which is the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine, and MORE, which is the Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion,” Desir said.

As per the initiative, the Yale Medicine Board reached out to the head of SWIM, Nina Stachenfeld, and asked her to suggest two candidates to be considered for the board, according to Bia. This led to the changes and additions to board leadership — the four new faculty members and new board chair. 

Ahuja, the board’s new chair, has served as the first female chair of surgery at Yale since February 2018, as well as

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Two Yale faculty elected to National Academy of Medicine

Yale’s Michelle Bell and Daniel Colón-Ramos were among 100 new members elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the academy announced Oct. 19.

Bell, the Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE), was elected for her research which focuses on how human health is affected by environmental conditions, including air pollution, weather, and climate change. She also examines environmental justice.

In recognition of her work, Bell has received the Prince Albert II de Monaco/Institut Pasteur Award, the Rosenblith New Investigator Award, and the NIH Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) Award.

Colón-Ramos, the McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience and Cell Biology in the department of neuroscience, was recognized “for making fundamental discoveries regarding the cell biology of the synapse,’’ the academy wrote.  His lab focuses on how neuronal synapses are formed and maintained to control behavior and store memories. 

Colón-Ramos was a recipient of the 2018 National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award, the 2018 Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Early Career Award, and the Sloan Research Fellowship. 

Established originally as the Institute of Medicine in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine addresses critical issues in health, science, medicine, and related policy and inspires positive actions across sectors. NAM works alongside the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering to provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation and conduct other activities to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions. 

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