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Turning the tables on cancer

Young cancer researcher Natalie Wolf knows her subject matter only too well.

March 11, 2014

Other undergraduates have done research in challenging fields like cancer.

But not many have been as familiar with their subject matter as Natalie Wolf.

In 2010 Wolf, who hails from Plymouth, Minnesota, was getting ready to move onto campus and begin her freshman year at the University of Minnesota. She had just had a stubborn cyst removed from her side and was looking forward to studying biology. Then, the day before move-in, the call from her doctor came.

 “He said cancer cells had been found in the cyst, but they didn’t know what type of cancer it was,” Wolf recalls. She was told to go ahead and move in to the University, but a week later, on the first day of classes, she met with an oncologist who told her it was Ewing’s sarcoma, and school was not an option just then.

What followed was nine months of chemotherapy and an extra surgery to remove the tumor bed at the U’s Amplatz Children’s Hospital.

Eager to dive in

Luckily for Wolf, she has a hard time not doing anything. During the months of treatment she kept busy seeing friends and getting close to the family dog, Gus. But most of all, she didn’t let her condition get the better of her.

“I kept a positive attitude. I never doubted I’d go back to school,” she says. “I figured I’d get through it and then be a stronger person.”

In fall 2011, Wolf was fit and ready to take on her freshman year. She had told an oncologist at Amplatz, Christopher Moertel, that she wanted to get into genetics and research, and in October that year Moertel put her in touch with a colleague of his. That was David Largaespada, a professor of genetics, cell biology and development and researcher with the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. Largaespada researches the genetic underpinnings of cancer, a perfect fit for Wolf.

Now a junior, Wolf has already accomplished what most undergrads can only dream of: She has earned a spot in the authors list of two papers published in peer-reviewed journals, Nucleic Acid Research and Nature.

“I’ve enjoyed all my time in the lab,” she says. “I’ve learned lots of techniques, lots of genetic techniques.

“I think David is wonderful," she adds, her eyes lighting up. “He’s always been very willing to sit down and explain things. It’s incredible how much information and knowledge he has.”

Currently, she’s researching osteosarcoma with Branden Moriarty, a postdoc in Largaespada’s lab. They are studying the roles of two genes in the disease. Wolf treats cultured cells with agents that inactivate the genes and helps identify the cells in which the inactivation was successful. Next they will do experiments to identify the cell functions that are affected by inactivating the genes; this will yield clues to the genes’ roles in cancer. 

“It has been tremendous to have Natalie working with us,” says Largaespada. “From the beginning, she has been very enthusiastic about our research. More than this, she has generated important data that we hope will help physicians treat sarcomas someday.”

Sharing her experience

Part of Amplatz’s service to patients is to put them in contact with others who have experienced the same thing.

“I’ve met with a few newly diagnosed people around my age. I told them that as bad as it may be, try to stay positive,” she says.

Wolf and Largaespada have both been active with the Karen Wyckoff Rein in Sarcoma Foundation, which raises donations and provides news, resources, and a way to connect to other sarcoma patients. Recently, the two of them spoke at a meeting of the organization, whose work they greatly admire, and Wolf was featured in a video [LINK].

Wolf aspires to a career in research, and she is now trying to decide if that will mean a Ph.D. or an M.D./Ph.D program. Either way, she will carry her experience over the last three and a half years forward, and for the better.

“I feel unique,” she says, referring to her dual roles with Rein in Sarcoma and Largaespada’s research. “Not only do I help raise money, but I’m on the forefront of actually helping cancer patients.”

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Young cancer researcher Natalie Wolf knows her subject matter only too well 

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