Wilmot Scientist Earns Exceptional Investigator Award to Study Chemo-Brain

Oct. 6, 2014
Michelle C. Janelsins, Ph.D., M.P.H., of UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute, has received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the highest honor conferred by the National Institutes of Health for young investigators. The five-year grant is for $2.3 million.

Janelsins trained as a brain biologist and studied basic science related to Alzheimer’s disease before transitioning into cancer research after seeing close family and friends struggle with cancer. Now she specializes in the investigation of chemo-brain, a collection of symptoms associated with chemotherapy that includes forgetfulness, fogginess, lack of concentration and difficulty with multitasking. Chemo-brain is estimated to affect 80 percent of people who are in the midst of treatment; up to 4 million cancer survivors also suffer long-term cognitive problems.

At the time Janelsins was launching a career in cancer research, she was intrigued by chemo-brain for its complexity and the way it profoundly impacts quality of life. “I really wanted to understand the mechanisms of what causes chemotherapy-related cognitive problems and to develop strategies to combat chemo-brain,” Janelsins said. 

Her winning NIH proposal is designed to fill in gaps in the field, by leveraging her knowledge of basic neuroscience and immunology, coupled with her behavioral and clinical cancer-control training. She plans to develop a clinically relevant mouse model to study key mechanisms for chemo-brain, and then test potential treatments including exercise, fish oil, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.

The highly competitive New Innovator program supports creative projects with high risk but high reward. Janelsins is bringing a new approach to cancer-control research by starting with bench science, rather than the more typical route of focusing on clinical studies with patient volunteers.

Her main hypothesis is that inflammation may fuel cognitive impairment in cancer patients. But it’s not clear what drives the inflammatory response in relation to brain function and neurotoxicity, making it critical to first investigate that information in animal models. 

“Understanding the mechanisms of chemotherapy-related cognitive problems will allow us to target biologically relevant pathways so that we can develop treatments that we are confident about,” she said. “Although animal studies are not equivalent to human studies, they provide valuable information and have implications for the human condition.”

Janelsins also would like to predict which patients are most likely to suffer from severe chemo-brain, based on pre-chemotherapy inflammatory markers and other factors in their blood.

“It is our hope that predictive markers of chemotherapy toxicity may also help us to tailor a treatment plan for each patient,’ she said. “For example, related to exercise, the ultimate goal is to be able to tell each patient exactly what level might help them deal with cognitive problems -- a daily walk, or some form of exercise three times a week, or maybe to be as active as possible around the house,” Janelsins said.

Janelsins is one of 49 scientists nationwide to receive a 2014 New Innovator Award, and the second UR faculty.  Edward B. Brown III, Ph.D., an associate professor at Wilmot, and of Biomedical Engineering, Neurobiology & Anatomy, received the award in 2009; Brown studies tumor metastasis using a multi-photon laser microscope.

Janelsins is an assistant professor of Oncology and Surgery, and director of the UR’s Cancer Control and Psychoneuroimmunology Laboratory housed in the Department of Surgery. In 2008 she earned her doctorate at the UR, followed by a training fellowship until 2011 in Wilmot’s cancer control research group headed by Gary R. Morrow, Ph.D. She received pilot funding from the Wilmot Cancer Institute (sponsored by Nancy & Friends Fighting Cancer Inc., in 2011), which allowed her to build toward an independent research career. Janelsins is also funded by the National Cancer Institute with a Career Development Award through 2018.

The NIH started the New Innovator program in 2007 to recognize and challenge early-career researchers who had not yet received a regular research (R01) or similar grants. The idea was to incent promising young scientists to swing for the fences and propose “exceptionally creative” new approaches to solve problems with an impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research.