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Joint M.D.-Ph.D. student wins international prize, honored during weeklong ceremony in Stockholm

Joint M.D.-Ph.D. student wins international prize, honored during weeklong ceremony in Stockholm

Allison Cleary decided that she wanted to try something different, so the joint degree student who is working on an M.D. and a research doctorate (Ph.D.) in Cell and Molecular Biology at Penn State’s College of Medicine participated in a cancer lab rotation. Ultimately, the desire to expand her personal horizons placed Cleary squarely on a path to international acclaim as the 2015 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists grand prize winner for her essay, “Teamwork: The Tumor Cell Edition.”   

The Science & SciLifeLab Prize, established in 2013, recognizes doctoral thesis work in life science and encourages young scientists as they begin their careers. As the grand prize winner, Cleary was awarded $30,000. Her essay, which described her Ph.D. dissertation research on breast cancer cell subpopulations in tumor development and progression, was published in the Dec. 4, 2015, edition of the influential journal Science. Cleary’s research also was the cover story in the Apr. 3, 2014, edition of the journal Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.

Asked to describe her research, Cleary said, “We know from cancer genome sequencing efforts that there is actually a remarkable degree of heterogeneity for genetic diversity within individual breast cancers. There are multiple genetically distinct subpopulations of tumor cells called subclones co-existing within these tumors. These different tumor cell subclones are often depicted as being sort of self-interested competitors in a Darwinian struggle to be the dominant or fittest subclone.  

“For my Ph.D. thesis project, we were trying to figure out whether, if instead of competing with each other, there were cases where these different subclonal populations of cells interacted and cooperated with each other in order to influence the way the overall tumor behaved.”

The impact of Cleary’s research includes the potential creation of novel treatments.

“In our mouse model of breast cancer, we found that there are instances where tumor cells work together and cooperate to influence tumor growth and progression,” Cleary said. “We still need to find out whether these same types of cooperative interactions are occurring within human breast tumors. If so, we might be able to develop treatments that interfere with those interactions, thereby halting overall tumor growth.”

Robert Levenson, co-director of the M.D./Ph.D. program and distinguished professor of pharmacology, and neural and behavioral sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, described Cleary as “one of our top students ever since she entered the M.D./Ph.D. program. Her paper in Nature is a great example of the type of high quality translational research that may lead to new treatments for breast and other types of cancer.”

In December, Cleary and three other prize winners, who each received $10,000, traveled to Sweden to engage in weeklong activities in honor of science, with the opportunity to meet leading researchers in their field. The annual award ceremony and banquet was held in the Grand Hôtel Hall of Mirrors in Stockholm, the original venue of the Nobel Prize banquet.

“While in Stockholm, I had the incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet,” Cleary said. “It was like the Oscars, but for scientists. As a young scientist just getting started, it was such an awesome and inspiring experience to see such great scientists being celebrated for their discoveries.”

Cleary entered graduate school with an academic focus on skeletal muscle physiology. During the rotation she pursued in the laboratory of Dr. Edward Gunther, she studied mammary gland physiology and breast cancer.

“Dr. Gunther’s dedication and excitement for cancer biology was truly contagious, and I was hooked from the very first day,” Cleary told a journalist for AAAS, The International Science Society podcast. “I think we all have moments in our life where everything kind of clicks for us, and we realize that this is what we are really supposed to be doing. That was certainly the case for me.”

Charles Lang, interim associate dean for graduate studies and distinguished professor of cellular and molecular physiology and surgery, said the Science & SciLifeLab Prize “recognizes the outstanding research efforts of Dr. Cleary, the mentoring she received from Dr. Gunther and the exceptional research environment at Penn State College of Medicine. Selected from thousands of essays submitted worldwide, this is a truly awe-inspiring achievement by a young scientist showcasing her scientific excellence.” 

A native of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, Cleary received her bachelor’s degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Colorado, and a joint medical-doctoral degree in cell and molecular biology from Penn State College of Medicine in 2014.

After receiving her medical degree in May, Cleary plans to continue her training in the field of pathology. “Ultimately, I hope to have my own research lab where I can continue to study breast cancer and tumor heterogeneity,” she said.

Cleary’s advice for fellow graduate students: “Keep going, and if you constantly find yourself circling back around to the same idea, pay attention to that—you might be on to something.”

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