Jia Liu, Ph.D., Honored as Community Champion, Receives $10,000

By Ben Boulden

In June, she was awarded $10,000 in research funds by the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance, an advocacy group based in Fort Smith, Arkansas that aims to raise awareness and promote education to fight ovarian cancer. On Friday, Sept. 27, she was honored as the Community Champion of the Year by the Arkansas Ovarian Cancer Coalition, the state advocacy organization for Arkansas.

“Ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynecological cancer. Sadly, about half of the diagnoses are in women in their early 60s,” said Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., UAMS vice chancellor for research. “The five-year relative survival rate is less than 50%. We need new breakthrough treatments, such as the one being developed by Dr. Liu, to combat this cancer. UAMS as the only academic center in Arkansas is committed to research that improves cancer care in Arkansas and around the nation.”

Liu and her research team have taken a unique approach to fighting cancer, especially ovarian cancer. They are re-inventing the use of viruses that infect and kill cancer cells to create more effective treatments or even cures.

“Viruses can make us sick, but we can re-engineer them to benefit us,” Liu said. “In this case, we can use them to kill cancer cells. The virus we are studying can work on many cancer types, but we’re particularly interested in treating ovarian cancer. For four decades, long-term survival for patients with ovarian cancer remained low and we hope to be able to help to improve this result.”

The team’s work has produced one re-engineered virus that has shown promise in early testing. Liu said a patent is pending, and there is interest from a pharmaceutical company in further developing and testing the virus in clinical trials.

“While society often uses numbers of patients to measure the effect of a disease, we perhaps should look at ovarian cancer more closely. This disease is a silent killer for women and indeed impacts so many families or individuals,” Liu said. “Compared with other cancer types, improvement in diagnosis and treatment for ovarian cancer is urgently needed.

Liu said awareness of this deadly disease also needs to be raised, including awareness of its symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, care, and advocating for research that will improve diagnosis and treatment.

“We sincerely thank the generous support from the River Valley Ovarian Cancer Alliance,” Liu said. “This fund will allow us to conduct important studies and help us to establish a sustainable research program for ovarian cancer immunotherapy. I also want to thank our long-time collaborator on our work, Dr. Martin Cannon. Dr. Cannon is an internationally renowned immunologist at UAMS and a mentor for me on ovarian cancer immunotherapy. Only with his help we were able to test my viral vector on clinical specimens and showed exciting results.”