When asked what some of her future goals are, one of the items on Colleen O’Connor’s list is to “cure cancer.” This mix of positivity, ambition and persistence exemplifies Colleen O’Connor ’08 MED. Thanks to her current work at The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, this lofty goal of O’Connor’s just may be attainable.
Colleen O’Connor in the lab.
O’Connor is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the cancer center, and is part of a team that has made some exciting developments in the fight against non-Hodgkin lymphoma using “man’s best friend.” The team has developed a new model for adoptive T-cell therapy using pet dogs.
“Treating dogs with cancer provides us with a great comparative oncology model for humans,” says O’Connor, who is one of the primary investigators of the study. “We learned important details about the interaction between chemotherapy and tumor cells that can be harnessed to improve the body’s immune response. This is something we hadn’t appreciated thus far from our clinical research in humans.”
Their work has received national attention and has been featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. “The project has been very challenging, but when you see owners so happy and grateful to be able to have more quality time with their dogs, it is really touching and drives me to get back to the lab and develop new immunotherapies,” she said. “I really love what I do. The results (of the study) make me hopeful for the future of cancer research.”
O’Connor has led an interesting path to her cancer-fighting career. She obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Miami in Florida with a marine science/biology major. Prior to earning her doctoral degree, she was an aquatic biologist at the Newport Aquarium. While there, she was in charge of the “Dangerous and Deadly” and “Jellyfish” galleries. Due to her close contact with the animals, she became interested in animal toxins and how the immune system reacts to, say, being stung by a jellyfish.
That’s when she decided to pursue a doctoral degree in toxicology from the UK College of Medicine graduate program.
“I was in Dr. Don Cohen’s lab in the Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics Department. His mentorship has a lasting effect on me, as I have drawn from the many things he taught me, especially about perseverance and analysis. Dr. Cohen’s lab provided me with a solid foundation to succeed. He was always so calm in the face of any problem. I have to give a lot of credit to UK for molding me into the scientist I am today,” she says.
While at UK, O’Connor was busy in and out of the classroom. She loved attending football and basketball games and attending Keeneland races in the fall and spring. She also remembers spending “a couple of months” in the W.T. Young Library writing her dissertation.
UK also has a special family connection for O’Connor. “The August of my first year of grad school, my sister Emily O’Connor Schwegman ’01 AS, ’06 DE started her first year of dental school and my brother Patrick O’Connor ’06 AS, ’09 LAW started his freshman year at UK. On the first day of school, we all met at Ovid’s for coffee early that morning. We called our parents for our ‘first day of school’ pep talk,” she says.
Since then, Emily has graduated from UK College of Dentistry and Patrick has graduated with an undergraduate and law degree from UK. O’Connor’s father, Dr. Patrick O’Connor ’78 DE also graduated from the UK College of Dentistry.
O’Connor advises others who are interested in medical research to pursue their passion and to stay positive and persistent.
“I read once that ‘success is a marathon, not a sprint.’ That phrase describes the business of science very well. In this field, I think we all make a difference in humanity,” she says.
By Molly Clark