Over $1 million awarded to U for ovarian cancer research

University of Minnesota researchers received a Department of Defense grant for cytomegalovirus and ovarian cancer research.

Kait Ecker

Over $1 million was awarded to University of Minnesota researchers to investigate the effects of a common strain of herpes on ovarian cancer patients.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s grant will fund University research on cytomegalovirus (CMV) and its effects on patients with ovarian cancer. The award will finance four years of research and provide structure for a mentorship program for Rachel Isaksson Vogel, the primary investigator.

The grant, which also provides two mentors for Vogel, was awarded mid-January, and the team plans to begin research in May.

A majority of the United States adult population is infected with CMV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once infected, the body carries it forever. Vogel and her research team believe CMV and inflammation may contribute to ovarian cancer patients’ quality of life.

“What I’m really interested in is CMV and inflammation contributing to fatigue, which is, if not the top, very close to the top, complaint that patients have after treatment,” Vogel said. “Can we help reduce that and ultimately improve outcomes like survival?”

In healthy people, CMV typically doesn’t show any symptoms. But in babies or those with suppressed immune systems, it can be harmful, said Mark Schleiss, a professor in the University’s Department of Pediatrics and an expert on CMV. He said CMV can reactivate, although it is unclear what triggers this.

If a patient’s body is fighting both CMV and cancer, it’s likely to increase inflammation, Vogel said, which can decrease the likelihood of survival.

Heather Nelson, one of Vogel’s mentors and a program leader at the University’s Masonic Cancer Center, will look for CMV in the blood samples of the patients participating in the study. Nelson also received a DOD grant for research on ovarian cancer and CMV.

“One of the questions is, when cancer patients get immune suppressed, particularly when they’re having chemotherapy, does this virus essentially come out of remission and contribute to their symptoms and other outcomes even longer term?” Nelson said. “The hypothesis is that those who have the virus come out of hiding will have worse symptoms and fatigue.”

Ovarian cancer has a low survival rate. It causes 5 percent of cancer deaths, despite only contributing to 2.5 percent of female cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.

“To have Rachel dedicate her career to outcomes and survivorship in this disease makes me very proud and excited to see where her career will take her,” said Melissa Geller, a gynecologic oncologist and one of Vogel’s mentors on the project.

Prior to this grant, Geller worked with Vogel as an informal mentor and said she is excited to continue collaborating.

“My whole career has been spent in trying to improve not only quality of life for women with ovarian cancer, but improve the treatments we give them,” Geller said. “Unfortunately, this is a very deadly disease, and the highest mortality rates that we see in gynecologic oncology are [in] women with ovarian cancer.”