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Release: June 19, 2000

UI medical student receives American Cancer Society award for cancer research

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Cancer Center has selected its recipient for the 1999-2000 American Cancer Society Student Stipend award, an honor given annually to an outstanding UI student in a medical, dental or health professional degree program to pursue a career in cancer research.

Aaron Holley, a fourth-year medical student in the UI College of Medicine and a Cedar Rapids native, will receive the $2,500 stipend and work with mentor Timothy Ratliff, Ph.D.,
UI professor of urology and Anderson-Hebbelin Professor in Prostate Cancer Research.

Holley's project will apply the principles of gene therapy to determine its effectiveness against prostate cancer cells in a laboratory experiment. The incidence of prostate cancer is increasing, Holley said, and despite efforts to detect the disease early, treatment still is a challenge.

Traditionally, surgery, radiation therapy and hormone therapy have been used to treat prostate cancer, but UI Cancer Center researchers have been pursuing gene therapy as another course of treatment. Gene therapy involves using a vector, often a disabled cold virus, as a vehicle to supply cells with healthy copies of flawed DNA. Once the cell has been altered, the DNA must be expressed by the tumor cell in order for the therapy to have an effect.

"Gene therapy is about changing the nature of tumor cells," Holley said. "By changing their make-up it might be possible to stimulate one's own immune system to kill these tumor cells, or to trigger the cells to die on their own."

One of the difficulties researchers face with gene therapy is getting the cells to express certain new characteristics, Holley said. In his project, Holley will use Gelfoam, a gel used to aid blood clotting in patients, in conjunction with gene therapy to increase cell expression.

Gelfoam acts like a sponge, preventing a virus from leaking out. It is understood that Gelfoam both activates platelets and stimulates a normal inflammatory reaction. The aim of Holley's research is to determine which one of these activities is responsible for successfully increasing cell expression.

"Gelfoam might be used in gene therapy for prostate cancer," Holley said. "My hope is that data from this research project may lead to other advances in gene therapy for prostate cancer, or other areas of gene therapy research."

Opportunities provided by the UI Cancer Center and the American Cancer Society, such as the Student Stipend Award, allow students to pursue outside research endeavors crucial to their development as medical professionals. Holley said he is grateful for the honor and thankful for guidance from Richard D. Williams, M.D., UI head of urology and a urologic oncologist at the UI Cancer Center. Williams is also Rubin H. Flocks Professor of Urology.

The UI Cancer Center advances cancer research and education through the collaborative efforts of researchers and physicians from 26 departments in six UI colleges and the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Using knowledge gained through this research, UI physicians and other health care professionals work together in the John and Mary Pappajohn Clinical Cancer Center to provide the most advanced cancer care available in a manner that recognizes each patient as an individual.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.