Vania Vidimar, PhD
Postdoctoral Trainee in Pharmacology
Vania Vidimar, PhD is a postdoctoral trainee in the Feinberg School of Medicine. Her research focuses on therapeutically targeting one of the most elusive targets in cancer research, namely RAS. Vania was recently named to the Halo Cures 40 under 40 Chicago Scientists list.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research focuses on developing innovative anti-cancer drugs. In Dr. Karla Satchell’s lab, I am working on a biologic drug to therapeutically hit one of the most elusive targets in cancer research, named RAS. More than 30% of all human cancers harbor RAS mutations which result in permanently active RAS proteins that continuously signal cancer cells to grow without control. One of the greatest challenges in cancer treatment has been the development of effective RAS-targeting drugs, and no successful therapies to inhibit this protein are approved to date. Our lab discovered a bacterial-derived toxin, namely RRSP, that inhibits RAS. We engineered this toxin in collaboration with Dr. Roman Melnyk (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto) using an innovative protein delivery platform. My work demonstrated that RRSP halts tumor growth, thus supporting its further development as an anticancer drug.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
In my career, switching to a new project has often tracked with a move to a different country. I grew up in Italy where I attended college, completed my master’s degree and took my first steps in a pharmacology lab. Next, I moved to France for my PhD, and six years ago I ended up in the United States for my postdoctoral studies. Working in different institutions, living in different countries, experiencing different cultures, learning new languages, and collaborating with scientists from all over the world has taught me a lot. These are for sure the most important and exciting twists in my career but did not come without challenges along the way.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I have always been interested in cancer research, both because of the science behind it and the fact that cancer has impacted the lives of people very close to me. For example, I saw an anticancer investigational drug in clinical trials prolonging survival of a family member by 18 months. This for me is the highlight of my inspiration and motivation. I hope one day to be part of a team that develops a molecule able to provide tangible benefits to patients affected by cancer.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
When performing an experiment, there is often no technique that perfectly fits a scientist’s needs. Optimization might be very challenging. However, our job can also be very rewarding when, after several attempts, we finally find the right combination of parameters that results in a successful experiment (e.g., finding a band in a western blot that we weren’t able to detect before, or obtaining a sharp section of a tiny spheroid in a histological slide). Although not being exactly breakthroughs, these little achievements can make my day.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
RAS-driven cancers are among the most difficult to treat and highly chemo-resistant tumors, leaving patients with extremely low survival rates. Each year, there are 1.7 million new cases of cancer. Of these, a high percentage of pancreatic, colorectal and lung cancers harbor mutations in the RAS genes. We established proof-of-concept that RRSP, because of its unconventional mode of action, has the potential to take anti-RAS therapy to the next level. By improving RRSP targeting to diseased tissues, we might be able to increase the therapeutic success of RAS inhibition and, possibly one day, benefit patients with RAS-addicted tumors.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I like running on the Lakefront Trail, which is one of the most beautiful urban trails in the United States. Before coming to Chicago, I was not a runner but because of this amazing trail and the numerous races the city offers, running has become part of my lifestyle. Running helps me clear my head and sometimes brainstorm new ideas.
Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
Not all projects work out the way we want and learning from failures is an essential component of our job. For me, a key to success is understanding when it is worth to insist on an idea, and when it is the right time to pivot to the next one. This also taught me to be more flexible and adapt to new situations. I have learned to feel more comfortable with changes over time.
Published: January 14, 2020
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