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Meet Rebecca Wates, Our First Crowdfunded Cancer Scientist

June 22, 2016

Mizzou alumna Dr. Rebecca Wates in white lab coat seated by microscope

By Hope Cristol

The big announcement came over Skype.

“I’m very excited this morning to be able to tell you that because of the generous donations to the Society, we’re able to fund your fellowship in ovarian cancer research,” said William Phelps, PhD, director of the preclinical and translational cancer research program at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

Some 800 miles away in Kansas City, Rebecca Wates, PhD, flashed a huge smile and flung her arms to the sky. “Thank you! Yay!” she cheered as her colleagues clapped in the background.

Earlier this year, the Society debuted a campaign to crowdfund an early-career researcher via the fundraising platform Crowdrise. Hundreds of people gave, allowing the Society to award a grant to Wates for her promising work in ovarian cancer.

Here are 5 things to know about the postdoctoral fellow and her work at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

1. She’s investigating a new treatment. Within one patient you can have different types of ovarian cancer cells, and it’s hard to effectively target them all with chemotherapy, Wates explains. She’s working on a different approach: Target and destroy something the tumors need to survive.

2. She’s got momentum. Her previous research identified a protein that acts like a motor to help cancer cells divide. There are drugs that target this motor, but the literature showed they don’t work for ovarian cancer. That’s because a secondary motor – a protein called KIF15 – kicks in to keep ovarian tumors growing, Wates says. With her crowdfunded research grant, Wates will be searching for a compound that targets KIF15.

3. Her assistant is a robot. “It’s not quite like the R2-D2 robot that we all remember from childhood,” Wates says. A computer program instructs a machine to drop different compounds onto KIF15. The goal is to identify ones that bind to the protein, a key step on the path to a new drug. Wates says she can test 96 compounds in about 10 minutes. A robot can do more than 1500 in less time.

4. The work is personal. Her father’s sister, a nurse, died from ovarian cancer. Wates says that doctors dismissed the symptoms at first. “She did a lot of research and diagnosed herself. She went back to the doctor and said, “I think I have ovarian cancer. We need to look into this,” Wates says. “Her experience made me interested in why there weren’t better ways of understanding how to diagnose patients.”

5. She gives back. Wates has been dedicated to community service since her childhood. One of several causes she makes time for is STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) advocacy, especially in minorities. Wates formed a small group of African American Women with STEM careers – she calls the group “STEMsational women” – to do community service and talk with students. “We answer questions about what it’s like to be a scientist. Minority students get to see people who look like them in those roles,” Wates says.

Stay tuned … we’ll be bringing you more about Rebecca’s crowdfunded research later this summer. To get the latest updates as soon as possible, follow us on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

Reprinted by the permission of the American Cancer Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

OGS NOTE: While at Mizzou, Dr. Wates was supported by the Life Sciences Fellowship program and the NIH IMSD (Initiative to Maximize Student Development) training grant (Principal Investigator Mark Hannink, PhD), as a doctoral student in the Department of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology. Her advisor was M. Sharon Stack, PhD. Dr. Wates is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center.