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Researching Cancer, Serving the Uninsured

Paula Whittington ’01 is a healer in more ways than one. As a doctor in training, she gives medical treatment to patients at an inner-city Detroit medical center, many of them uninsured. Outside of the clinic, her research may offer hope for millions of breast cancer patients.

The former MARC*U*STAR and Meyerhoff scholar at UMBC has already earned her Ph.D. and is working towards her M.D. at Wayne State University. She was recently lead author on a Cancer Research article announcing a potential new vaccine for a type of breast cancer.

Whittington, who has always been fascinated by the immune system, worked under the mentorship of Wayne State Medical School’s Wei-Zen Wei that focused on HER-2, a surface protein that is over expressed by breast cancer cells. Doctors screen for high HER-2 levels as an indicator of a poor prognosis, but it also gives a target for a treatment that has caused tumors to regress.

The problem with HER-2 as a drug target is that after about nine months of treatment, the cancer cells that remain in circulation become resistant to the therapy and the tumors come back. Wei has developed a DNA vaccine to address this complication that is currently undergoing clinical trials in Sweden. “The idea is to train the body to recognize HER-2 and attack cancer cells, not healthy cells,” said Whittington.

Outside of the lab, Whittington enjoys serving clinic patients. “I like treating different people from different cultures,” she said. One of her most recent rotations was pediatric hematology/oncology. “You think it would be depressing with cancer and kids, but 85 percent of their cancers are curable,” said Whittington.

Whittington continues to represent UMBC well, despite the passing of time and distance. She remains in touch with former UMBC mentors such as Professor of Biological Sciences Sue Rosenberg and Professor Emeritus of Africana Studies Daphne Harrison.

“I remember Paula as an energetic student who seemed to flourish when working on assignments or participating in discussions and activities,” said Harrison. “I am excited about her achievements and that she continues to be a scholar and scientist of exceptional talent and humanitarian concern.”

(1/23/09)