UW-Madison expert launches cancer research using sharks

Published: Jan. 14, 2022 at 3:11 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A UW-Madison expert is launching research focused on therapies for diseases such as cancer - using sharks.

In 2021, the UW Carbone Cancer Center provided the necessary equipment for the research to UW Carbone faculty member Dr. Aaron LeBeau. LeBeau will leading the shark-based cancer research, which is currently the only research of its kind worldwide.

“I’m really looking forward to working with these animals long term,” LeBeau said. “Sharks are widely misunderstood. A lot of people are scared of sharks, yet still fascinated by them. Our sharks are friendly and curious! They are excited to see us and love to play with us. I anticipate many fascinating discoveries in the years to come based on my recent research.”

LeBeau and his colleagues are currently researching how proteins called Variable New Antigen Receptors, or VNARs, can be used to treat cancers such as breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers. VNARs are part of the adaptive immune system of sharks and can be engineered to recognize any target of interest, including a virus, bacteria or cancer cell.

The researchers are working with four juvenile nurse sharks, which are about the same size as a badger.

“The shark immune system is efficient in its simplicity and is one of the earliest known immune systems in existence, predating ours by hundreds of millions of years,” LeBeau said. “So, what we are trying to do is harness the weird properties of VNARs to create agents that recognize and bind tightly to cancer cells, which could lead to better methods of detection and destruction of the cancer cells.”

LeBeau’s studies have focused on other unusual subjects as well. When he worked in Minnesota in 2019, he investigated how antibodies found in animals like llamas and alpacas could be used to identify and target prostate cancer cells in the body.

During this research, LeBeau found that other marine animals such as sharks have similar antibody structures to llamas and alpacas, so he suspected sharks could play a role in cancer research as well.

When he realized he needed smaller subjects than the very large sharks at a public aquarium, LeBeau began his search for the right place for a shark tank. This is when LeBeau found the UW Carbone Cancer Center at UW-Madison.

“I thoroughly believe that VNARs have the potential to revolutionize how cancer is imaged and treated,” LeBeau said.

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