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E-news Online March 2011

U.Va. Biomedical Engineering Graduate Student Receives the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation’s 2011 Research Scholar Award

By Kathryn Welsh

Photo by Zak Richards
L to R: Kevin Janes, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Esther Hoffberg, JMNMF board member; Karin Holmberg, 2011 Research Scholar Award recipient and biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate; Greg Safko, JMNMF president; and, Kathryn Thornton, associate dean for graduate programs at the Engineering School.

Karin Holmberg, a Ph.D. candidate in the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, recently received a highly competitive 2011 Research Scholar Award from the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation.

The Foundation established the Research Scholar Award in 2006 to encourage graduate students to pursue melanoma research throughout their academic and professional careers. The award is granted to individuals pursuing innovative melanoma research that has the potential to affect the academic, scientific, clinical and patient communities. The award provides the selected graduate students with $10,000 to further their research projects.

The foundation’s advisory council selected Holmberg as one of seven award recipients nationwide. She was chosen from 26 candidates from 16 of the nation’s top cancer research centers, including the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Yale University Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Penn State University-Hershey Cancer Center. “Karin has tremendous potential to bring a new perspective to the way we understand and treat melanoma,” said Kevin Janes, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Cell-Signaling Bioanalysis Laboratory. “The award from the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation recognizes this talent and will help to support her ambitious research plans and future scientific development.”

Holmberg’s research involves investigating effective therapies to treat metastatic melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Although some potential therapies to treat the disease have been discovered, patients usually develop resistance to these therapies shortly after starting their treatment. However, research has suggested that melanoma therapies are more effective when simultaneously targeting several pathways in the cell. Holmberg’s research focuses on determining how these cell pathways influence the performance of potential therapies for metastatic melanoma.

Holmberg has collaborated with the laboratories of Michael Weber and Daniel Gioeli at the U.Va. Cancer Center, where researchers have conducted high-throughput drug combination screens on 20 melanoma cell lines. The results from these screens have identified several effective drug pairs. To further this research, Holmberg is working to develop several methods to measure cell signaling on the molecular level, such as kinase and phosphatase activity assays as well as receptor expression profiling. The molecular-level data collected will be used to develop models of the cell-signaling network and discover specific mechanisms of drug synergy and tumor mutation.

“Our Research Scholar Awards are invaluable at the grassroots level, to grow interest in melanoma research, at qualified cancer centers across the country,” said Robert E. Nicolay, JMNMF chair. “If we can attract the brightest minds that are considering, or already within the nation’s cancer research pipelines, to pursue a career in melanoma research, we’re that much closer to better understanding the disease, identifying the means for effective treatments and, most importantly, finding a cure.

“Dr. Janes, in recommending Karin, noted that she brings ‘a unique perspective to cancer research that can provide the basis for innovation.’ Our JMNMF Professional Advisory Panel and Board RSA Committee agreed wholeheartedly in her award selection.”