A Passion for Ovarian Cancer Research


About her passion for Ovarian Cancer

My mother had ovarian cancer—about 15 years ago. She had stage two and made it, she is living. Partly because of my mother’s cancer and because of the fact that, as a pharmaceutical chemist you always strive to find the molecule that one day will work on people, I found my passion for ovarian cancer research. Even though I don’t directly see patients, I work in close relation with their physicians to make sure they have the best treatment possible for their condition. Those interactions are a big part of what keeps me going.

Her background

I am a pharmaceutical chemist by training and I received my PHD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in Italy. I then specialized in Sweden and Switzerland. When I came to the US for my post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Pathology at John’s Hopkins Hospital, I started my work with ovarian cancer.  There, I really got interested in targeted therapies for ovarian cancer treatment.

We developed a number of compounds of new molecules that we believe to have the potential to enter clinical trial soon. And so when I came to the University of Minnesota, I continued to collaborated with the Johns Hopkins, and we have kept working on this molecule.

The science of targeted treatments

They are inhibitors of a particular class of enzymes. These enzymes are called DUBs enzymes, which is short for deubiquitinating enzymes.

These are expressed at a very high level in the clinical specimens that we get from ovarian cancer patients. And because they are enzymes they really seem to be able to drive ovarian cancer initiation and progressions. And so we believe that by targeting—by inhibiting these enzymes with our new molecules—we can treat ovarian cancer patients.

My lab also has a big collaboration with the University of Alabama. They have the model for chemotherapy resistance. What they taught us to do was take clinical specimens from ovca patients and then implant them into mice. The mice will grow a tumor that is the same as the one of the patient. And then these mice are given chemotherapy—the same chemo regimes that that particular patient will get—so what happens is if the tumor in these mice shrinks, it is likely the patients will respond to the same treatment.

At one point in time, we will end up with a tumor that doesn’t shrink any longer, and this tumor is now chemoresistant. What we do in my lab is we try our new molecules to see if they are actually capable of killing the tumor that conventional chemo couldn’t. These molecules are called DUB inhibitors.

When will new treatment be available

It is a long road that leads a molecule from the research laboratory and into the clinics for patient treatment. And it is a road that we do not travel alone. Our first and foremost priority is patient safety. Our new molecules are safe in the animals we have tested. We are now working in close collaboration with our physicians and other lead scientists at the Institute of Therapeutic Discovery and Development, and the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota, to make these molecules safe for humans. I predict this class of new molecules would initially be available for patients that do not respond to conventional chemotherapy or that becomes resistant to it. Our long term hope is for this class of compounds to become the first line of treatment for patients affected by aggressive forms of ovarian cancer.

Why outside funding is important

Support from private foundations and individual donors is crucial for what we do. It allows us to generate convincing evidence that what we do is important for treatment of ovarian cancer patients.

When we submit research grants to federal agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH) or the Department of Defense (DOD) only a very, very small percentage of the grants are funded. For example, in an NIH grant the payline is about 7%, which means that you have to be among the best 7% investigators in your field in the country to be funded. My last grant scored in the 12th percentile which is very good but we need to do better. We need support from private foundation and individual donors to do better.

What is your hope for 10, 20 years?

I hope that in the next 10, 20 years we will understand how ovarian cancer develops and progresses and that we will be able to diagnose it much sooner. I hope that what I do will provide patients with better treatment options than what is available now. At the end of the day, we may not be able to prevent ovarian cancer from happening but we must be able to make it more curable.

Learn more about Dr. Bazzaro and her research