A life-saving mission

Pelotonia Fellowship puts students in position to help those fighting cancer

Ohio State student Max Wilberding
Max Wilberding

For student Max Wilberding, one of the most meaningful experiences of working in the Roychowdhury Lab at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute has been the opportunity to meet patients on the lab’s clinical drug trials.

That includes Linda Boyed. 

“When you have a chance to meet the patients in these clinical trials, suddenly, this research is real. It’s life saving and life changing,” Wilberding said. “The harder I work, the more likely I’ll be seeing results someday — and not just in a paper but in a person.”

At age 52, Boyed was diagnosed with intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, a difficult-to-treat cancer that forms in the bile ducts. Through a specialized genomic test, Dr. Sameek Roychowdhury was able to match Boyed with a drug therapy that targets specific cancer-causing mutations.

“Cancer dramatically changed my life, but I have an improved quality of life now because of this targeted therapy,” Boyed said. “I know I am not in control of everything, but I am hopeful for the future in the advancements being made through research.”

In fact, Boyed has a particular gene mutation from the gene family Wilberding is studying as part of a research project funded by the Pelotonia Fellowship Program. The gene has been linked to cancer progression and to resistance to first- and second-round drugs. In the lab, Wilberding is studying how patients who have this particular gene mutation can become resistant to therapy and, if that occurs, how to combat it.

For now, Boyed’s cancer has stopped advancing. In 2019, she got to watch her son graduate from high school.

“Two years later she’s here and alive when her oncologist had initially suggested hospice care,” Roychowdhury said. “Our research teams are creating hope for patients with advanced and difficult-to-treat cancer.”

The Pelotonia Fellowship Program trains promising and accomplished undergraduate, graduate, medical and postdoctoral students from any discipline at Ohio State who have the potential to become independent cancer researchers. An annual allocation of $2 million in Pelotonia revenue funds the program.

Since the Pelotonia fellowship was established in 2010, the program has funded over 500 projects, said Director Rosa Lapalombella. Nearly half of the funded projects have been for undergraduate students, with the remainder for graduate and postdoctoral students.

“We are trying to fund science at any stage in the career of the fellows,” Lapalombella said.

While each funded research project must be cancer related, the Pelotonia Fellowship Committee that oversees the program seeks out projects that are interdisciplinary in nature.

“Since the Fellowship started, we have had almost every college involved,” Lapalombella said. One example: an applicant from a communications background proposed a project to improve communication with terminal cancer patients who are being transferred to hospice.

Undergraduate fellows work with mentors and receive guidance on project management. Roychowdhury provides his students weekly career development workshops in the summer covering topics such as work ethic, decision making and facing adversity.

“We’re helping them to develop as individuals and as researchers,” he said. “They learn to solve real-world problems, and that real-life work experience is valued. If you’ve only been in a course or a lecture hall, you don’t know how to solve problems.”

While many of the fellows will continue working in the field of cancer research, some won’t. And that’s part of the program’s appeal.

“It doesn’t have to be what they do the rest of their life,” Roychowdhury said. “It’s not the actual specific content they are doing but the experience of learning to solve problems. It doesn’t matter what the field is, learning to solve problems can translate.”

Money raised by riders in Pelotonia, an annual cycling event established in 2009 with the objective to fund life-saving cancer research, funds not just the Fellowship but numerous programs at The OSUCCC – James. The Pelotonia Fellowship Program provides access to funding that’s extremely important for young researchers, and is one of a number of funding opportunities Pelotonia creates.

The program provides a tremendous financial opportunity for students such as Miguel Disbennett, a fourth-year microbiology major and recipient of a 2019 undergraduate Pelotonia Fellowship.

“For my first two years at Ohio State, I worked full-time during every single break to pay for my schooling,” Disbennett said. “With this fellowship, you’re being paid to do research. I don’t have to work during the summer — I can really dig in and do the work I love.”

Fellows have the opportunity to present findings at the Pelotonia Fellowship Symposium held each October, and Lapalombella hopes to eventually incorporate research seminars throughout the year to provide additional chances for fellows to share their findings. Additionally, fellows can attend meet-and-greet opportunities throughout the year, such as a luncheon event to introduce researchers to those who have benefitted from past research.

Disbennett said this year’s Pelotonia luncheon gave him plenty of inspiration to get to work in the lab.

“Attending the event and being able to meet people whose lives are affected by cancer puts so much fire under you to keep doing your research,” Disbennett said, “even in the early stages.”