Wilmot Cancer Research Fellowship Supports ‘Trajectory of Learning’

Jan. 30, 2020

Wilmot’s support for education continues beyond formal medical and scientific training to professional development for faculty and staff.Carla Casulo, M.D.

“Given that this field is wholly dependent upon novelty and science to provide patients the best care possible and to help them live longer and with better quality of life, we are on a career trajectory of learning,” says Carla Casulo, M.D., Wilmot’s Assistant Director of Mentoring &Career Development.

Wilmot has a special mechanism devoted to this kind of ongoing training. The Wilmot Cancer Research Fellowship is for physicians who have completed their post-graduate training and are on the cusp of their research careers.

“Wilmot sees the value of protecting junior faculty’s time in this transition period,” says Melissa (Kah Poh) Loh, M.D., who received a Wilmot fellowship this year.

The program was created more than 30 years ago on the wishes of local businessman and philanthropist James P. Wilmot, the cancer center’s namesake. Funded by the James P. Wilmot Foundation, the three-year fellowship is highly competitive, and it has funded the research of more than 100 physicians.

These projects have improved existing cancer therapies, provided better understanding the mechanisms by which cancers develop and progress, and improved the understanding of the risks and challenges that cancer survivors face.

Melissa (Kah Poh) Loh, M.D.Loh’s project, for example, will look at whether a Wilmot-developed exercise program delivered using a tablet will help frail older adults with conditions such as leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome maintain their functional abilities, allowing them to receive treatment longer and with a good quality of life.

“The population I’m studying is underrepresented and not being evaluated very much in the research setting,” Loh says. “And the intervention can be adapted to facilitate future dissemination and implementation.”

Loh recently received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for this work. The grant is meant to transition fellows into independent investigators.

One of the earliest Wilmot fellows was infectious disease specialist William Bonnez, M.D., who made the discoveries that led to the development of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, one of the only vaccines in the world to prevent cancer. Bonnez and his colleagues Richard Reichman, M.D., and Robert Rose, Ph.D., created virus-like particles to mimic HPV, and they showed that exposure to these particles could generate neutralizing antibodies that would keep the actual virus from infecting human tissue.William Bonnez, M.D.

“Without the fellowship, the work would never have happened,” Bonnez told Dialogue in 2014.

Since the vaccine was introduced in 2006, rates of HPV infection in the United States have declined significantly, and researchers are just beginning to see reductions in the incidence of HPV-related cancers, which can take a decade or more to develop.