Ross Weatherman Brings Experience, Top Students to Cancer Puzzle

Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Ross Weatherman Lab

Fighting back: Ross Weatherman's organic chemistry students are seeking improved breast cancer treatments. The disease "has affected nearly everyone, so it feels good to fight back," he says.

Claiming about 40,000 lives annually, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women in the United States.

That may be why so many Rose-Hulman students have joined Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Ross Weatherman's quest to unravel some of breast cancer's most elusive mysteries.

"I think the students feel like they are really trying to help people," says Weatherman, who started this work nearly two decades ago as an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, San Francisco. "Cancer is terrible and has affected nearly everyone, so it is feels good to fight back," he says.

Weatherman's research is focused on the role estrogen plays in breast cancer. Estrogen receptor positive breast cancers are commonly treated with drugs, such as tamoxifen, which inhibit cancer cell growth by blocking estrogens from stimulating cell proliferation. While effective at blocking estrogen in the breast, these drugs can mimic estrogen in other parts of the body, increasing the risk of other cancers.

"We really want to probe that," says Weatherman, whose research earned him the 2016 Rose-Hulman Board of Trustees Outstanding Scholar Award.

In his lab, Weatherman and his students are looking into the molecular mechanisms underlying estrogen (and antiestrogen) action in the body. If successful, their work could result in better breast cancer treatments with fewer side effects, he says.

Kent Kraus, a senior biochemistry major and co-winner of this year's William Albert Noyes, Sr. Award in Chemistry, is among the many Rose-Hulman students to join Weatherman's research. Working together, they made and tested new tamoxifen derivatives for their ability to block estrogen action in the hope of finding a new, viable breast cancer treatment drug, Kraus says.

"Doctor Weatherman was a great research advisor who helped me gain the skills and thought process necessary for conducting scientific research," he says.

Weatherman says he is lucky to have Rose-Hulman students working at his side. Others have included senior biochemistry major and the other co-winner of this year's William Albert Noyes, Sr. Award in Chemistry, Abigail Etters, who examined the effect of green tea on estrogen receptors, and Lauren Miller, winner of this year's Samuel F. Hulbert Outstanding Biomedical Engineering Graduate Award majoring in biomedical engineering and biochemistry and molecular biology.

"I think we all want the smartest people in the world working on important problems like treating cancer. So, we should want Rose students working on cancer research," Weatherman says. "To be able to take our super-talented students and start them on a path to do that is incredibly satisfying."