Community Award Reinforces Value of Risk-taking in Research

February 25, 2013

Rebecca Riggins, PhD, received the first cancer-focused award through Georgetown University Medical Center's Partners in Research program.
Rebecca Riggins, PhD, received the first cancer-focused award through Georgetown University Medical Center's Partners in Research program.

As a recipient of the 2012-2013 Partners in Research Award, the idea of partnering with the community has taken on a new meaning for Rebecca Riggins, PhD.

The award, created by Georgetown University Medical Center, brings together members of the metropolitan Washington, DC, community who have an appreciation for the importance of biomedical research and the impact it can have when translated into patient care. One of just two awardees this cycle, Riggins produced the first winning proposal focused on cancer research.

Riggins is an assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. A member of the breast cancer program, her lab studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms of hormone independence and therapeutic resistance in breast cancer.

She says that winning this award has reinforced for her why taking risks will always be crucial for innovative cancer research — it is how important discoveries are made.

“In the early days and weeks of this project we very easily could have thrown up our hands and abandoned or put this research on hold because the results didn’t fit what we thought we knew. It’s far too soon to judge if or how our research will positively impact the treatment of breast and brain tumors, but that is what we are working towards.”

The goal of her research project, titled “Therapeutic Targeting of p53-Mutant Tumors with the Acyl Hydrazone GW4716”, is to develop a new way to treat breast and brain tumors, two very different, aggressive and increasingly common types of cancer.

Riggins’ journey to developing a successful grant proposal started with a simple idea that led her to unexpected data, eventually prompting her and fellow researchers to completely change direction. She now refers to the process as “an amazing exercise in trusting collective instincts and asking the right questions.”

“Each experiment guided the next in a very logical way, and even though the many ‘unknowns’ still frustrate us, in retrospect the process has been incredibly satisfying, and even fun,” says Riggins. “It has also been valuable to broaden our perspective by incorporating breast and brain tumors into the same study. They are very distinct malignancies, but there is a surprising synergy to what we are learning from both tumor types.”

Now in its second year, the Partners in Research grant process is unique in the close connection it draws between philanthropy and research. Individuals from the community contribute toward a fund for biomedical research and in turn become active reviewers of the researchers’ submitted proposals.

In addition to determining which projects are funded, the Partners remain closely connected to the projects once the awards are announced. They receive a written update on the progress of the funded projects, are invited to visit the laboratories of the grantees, and attend a showcase meeting at which the final research findings are presented.

Now closing in on her final few months of the project, Riggins notes that the process has been liberating by affording such a direct and personal interaction with the Partners.

“Several of the [grantors] have expressed an interest in visiting the lab during the grant term, and I look forward to showing them where and how we do our research,” Riggins says.

“I think when we as researchers step outside the technical arena and challenge ourselves to connect with the general public, we get a much more meaningful view of what is important to our community … and in turn, this improves our science.”


Author: Sarah Kana, Georgetown Lombardi Communications