SBS graduate is exploring vaccines to stop the spread of cancer

Michael Donkor Sbs Grad CopyA recent School of Biomedical Sciences graduate wants to improve the chances of survival for cancer patients by stopping the spread of tumors throughout the body.

Michael Donkor, PhD, created a vaccine that stops the spread of breast cancer to the lungs. The project, which he conducted for his dissertation research, was successful in mouse models and could be expanded to test the vaccine in other pre-clinical settings.

“What we wanted to do differently was to tackle metastasis and not the primary tumor itself,” Donkor said. “We identified the lung as one of the most frequent sites of cancer metastasis and engineered a vaccine based on nanotechnology to induce an immune response against the tumor. The goal was to prevent tumor cells from other parts of the body from seeding in the lungs.”

The research could lead to more breakthroughs that increase survivorship among patients who are diagnosed with primary breast tumors. It could also help clinicians find better treatment combinations for cancer patients and provide an alternative to current regimen, like chemotherapy and radiation, that have several side effects.

Donkor conducted his research project under the mentorship of Harlan Jones, PhD, associate professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics. Jones says Donkor’s efforts have had a big impact on his lab’s research.

“Our laboratory has been working on improving immune-based therapies against primary breast and metastatic lung cancer for quite some time,” Jones said. “Leveraging our previous work, Michael’s recent studies bring us closer to realizing our vaccine’s potential against aggressive metastatic cancers.”

Now Donkor, who completed his PhD in Biomedical Sciences degree in February, has a new role as a postdoctoral scientist at Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharmaceutical company developing treatments for cancer. He’s applying his expertise in cancer immunotherapy on a project to find biomarkers on tumor cells with the hopes of developing new treatments for cancer.

Donkor got his start in research after a serving as a certified pharmacist in his home country of Ghana.

“I really wanted to pursue research and I knew people from Ghana who were already pursuing their PhDs at the Health Science Center,” Donkor said. “They told me about opportunities here and I was very much excited, and I decided to give it a shot.”

Though Fort Worth is a long way from Ghana, he found a welcoming community that included several other students from his home country. They also came to the HSC School of Biomedical Sciences for research opportunities they didn’t have back home.

“The students from Ghana kept me confident,” Donkor said. “We are like a family. We get together and celebrate when someone achieves something, and we rely on each other for help.”

That encouragement from his friends and fellow students combined with the support of the School of Biomedical Sciences faculty were keys to success for Donkor.

“The support system was fantastic,” he said. “There was never a time here when I felt unwanted. The faculty was very supportive and always checking up on us to make sure we were doing well.”

Donkor believes his research and the knowledge he gained at HSC could have a big impact on the field of cancer research and the world.

“Every country has felt the bad effects of cancer,” he said. “It means we have to up our game. Most of the treatments for cancer now are personalized and tuned to the patients’ needs. It makes me feel like my knowledge can help the people back home.”

Beyond finding new treatments for cancer, Donkor also has his sights set on expanding research opportunities in Africa.

“I would like to give back to the community back home.” he said. “My long-term goal is to create a research facility in Ghana.”

“I came here because of the resources that allowed me to do research and to achieve my career objectives. I want to make sure others have the same opportunities.”

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