C*STAR opens new research pipeline for Carle Cancer Center

More than a year and a half ago, Maria Grosse Perdekamp, MD, attended an abstract presentation at the University of Illinois. And she left with two takeaways.

First, potential for the Cancer Scholars for Translational and Applied Research (C*STAR) program excited her. Second, she noticed a commonality with one student idea, in particular.

Evijola Llabani covered the topic of “Fluorometric microculture cytotoxicity assay for personalized medicine.” Dr. Perdekamp found inspiration in the concept because it pairs well with her interest in breast cancer treatment.

Their pairing became an example of C*STAR success after three semesters of work together. Carle’s Kendrith Rowland, MD, also worked with a student, Elizabeth Awick, on a project titled “Relationships among physical activity, quality of life, and cognitive function in breast cancer survivors.”

Through projects like these, the jointly funded program between the University of Illinois and Carle Cancer Center matches graduate students from translational research with Carle clinicians. It intends to:

  1. Match graduate students with a UI faculty mentor and a Carle physician mentor for the duration of the research project.
  2. Focus research on clinically relevant projects related to cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, gastrointestinal tract and gynecological areas.
  3. Allow students and faculty to participate in grand rounds at Carle, site alternating workshops, and joint seminars.

Thus far, it’s clear Llabani benefited from the interaction.

“Being involved in the C*STAR program opened up my eyes that it’s not just academia or industry, but I could actually be doing clinical research and see the translational part of drug discovery,” she said in the U of I publication Pathways.

“I’m actually considering having a career in clinical research. I like helping out and seeing the patient side, their struggles, and that what we are doing can help them.”

Dr. Perdekamp has a few takeaways from experience thus far, too:

In what ways do you believe involvement in programs like C*STAR benefits Carle Cancer Center?

“Research is an important part of oncology. We participate in clinical research trials from the NCI, as well as from pharmaceutical companies. Being involved in basic research trials with the U of I allows us to open the doors for this kind of research and more involvement with drug development. There are so many new approaches, treatment options and developments that we all like to follow the research that is out there, particularly research done in our community.

“It is very exciting to work with Evi Llabani, her U of I mentor Professor Paul Hergenrother, and their group together. We clinicians and the researchers try to be available as much as possible to bring our project to a success. This hopefully will give long-term ties between Carle Cancer Center and the U of I.”

What potential do you see from projects like the one Llabani is working on?

“With molecular tests we know that there are different subtypes of breast cancer. We can possibly find the chemotherapy more targeted to a specific subgroup of breast cancer patients. Evi Llabani and Professor Hergenrother’s group have developed new compounds for treating malignancies. These will also be tested on our tumor specimens. I am learning about the exciting work of the researchers.”

In the article from the University, Llabani spoke highly of the experience because it introduced her to the clinical side of the research process. And it seemed to spark a new interest in this part of the industry. What does it mean to you to see that kind of interest come from a young mind?

“I feel that coming to Carle Cancer Center to work together and shadowing the clinical part is very important for the researchers. Evi was introduced in all regulations and procedures for obtaining human tumor tissue. Being in our clinic provided several instances in which we were able to recruit another patient for our trial.”