AUGUSTA, Ga. – Dr. Nita J. Maihle, a tumor virologist/biologist and educator, is leading the U.S. Department of Defense’s national initiative to enable early career ovarian cancer investigators to stay focused and successful in their fight against the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in women.
Maihle, who has led the PhD training program in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Medical College of Georgia and is associate center director for education in the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University, is the new dean of the DOD’s Ovarian Cancer Academy. She is principal investigator on a $2 million grant to fund the academy.
Dr. Douglas Levine, a surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who heads the center’s Gynecology Research Laboratory, is the academy’s new assistant dean.
“This is an opportunity to give young investigators the tools they need to be successful and to stay focused on ovarian cancer,” Maihle said. There is a dearth of investigators, research activity and funding in ovarian cancer, which accounts for about 3 percent of cancer in women but causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, according to the American Cancer Society. An estimated 22,280 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and 14,240 will die from it, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Maihle and Levine are serving a five-year term leading the Ovarian Cancer Academy, established in 2009 to provide a wide range of support to funded, published investigators in the first three years of their career. Currently, 14 trainees scattered at institutions across the nation are coming together for monthly webinars and at an upcoming annual retreat to learn from each other, from established investigators and even from women battling the disease.
Their goals with this next generation of ovarian cancer researchers also include fostering team science that better identifies disease causes and treatment targets and learning how to better communicate about their work.
“We need to understand the biology of the disease better. We only just discovered the target cell type in the last few years,” Maihle said of ovarian-cancer-causing cells. In fact, over most of her 30-year career in studying ovarian as well as breast cancer, the single-cell layer ovarian surface epithelium that covers the ovary has been considered the target cell for ovarian cancer. Researchers now have evidence that if, in fact, this is even a target cell, it’s one of several in this cancer. Today, their focus is the secretory cells that line the fallopian tubes, producing fluids that help transport the egg and sperm. Mounting evidence suggests these cells have a significant role. For example, women who have their ovaries – but not their fallopian tubes – removed to avoid ovarian cancer, can still get the disease, Maihle said.
Their unique insight and experience make women who get the disease important members of the teams Maihle and Levine are building, not just “donors of samples. We can read a paper on chemoresistance and it’s all cells in a tube. But these women are living with it,” Maihle said.
Women with ovarian cancer already are involved in the monthly webinars that pull the like-minded scientists together and also will attend the upcoming fall retreat. Their input already has been an “eye opener” for even the physician-scientists who also treat patients, Maihle said. Ultimately, they will help young investigators focus on the most urgent problems, including the huge need for the kind of targeted therapies that have helped turn around survival rates in breast cancer, she said.
Part of that team building includes a likely tough departure from the individualism inbred in many researchers. “We want to get away from this hero-driven science stuff – that’s what they call it in science essays – and toward a more cooperative, collaborative mindset,” she said. She notes that is a “big battleship” to turn around in a field where people are selected for their “rugged individualism” and must be super competitive to secure external funding from groups like the National Cancer Institute and DOD. Still, teamwork is a prerequisite for successful science today, she said.
Last year, Maihle chaired the Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics Review Panel for the Ovarian Cancer Research Program of the U.S. Army Medical Department Medical Research and Materiel Command, which has oversight of the Army’s medical research activity including the Ovarian Cancer Academy. She chaired the program’s Investigator-Initiated Research Review Panel in 2014. She has held similar leadership roles in the Command’s Breast Cancer Research Program, including chairing the Pathobiology Scientific Review Panel in 2015. Maihle has led numerous National Cancer Institute initiatives and review panels as well, including chairing the review panel for Feasibility Studies to Build Collaborative Partnerships in Cancer Research and Comprehensive Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity, both in 2015. She is a member of the Developmental Therapeutics Subcommittee of the Gynecologic Oncology Group Committee on Experimental Medicine. She served on the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition Medical Advisory Board from 2003-07.
Maihle was inspired to fight cancer as a teenager when she lost her father to cancer. He had survived World War II but contracted malaria while stationed in North Africa. Malaria compromised his immune system enabling infection with Epstein-Barr, a cancer-causing virus indigenous to that part of the world. President Richard Nixon declared the war on cancer in December 1971, two months before her father died. “He got a cold, two weeks later he had a lump on his face and 18 months later he died,” Maihle said. She noted that worldwide about 20 percent of all cancers come from viruses. “I went to school and I was going to cure cancer. That idea did not go away from me,” said Maihle. She received her undergraduate degree in botany from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and earned a PhD in biomedical sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed postdoctoral fellowships at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the National Cancer Institute in molecular biology/retrovirology, and in tumor virology/tumor biology at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
She came to MCG and the Georgia Cancer Center in 2013 from Yale University School of Medicine and Comprehensive Cancer Center where she was founding director of the Susan G. Komen-funded Racial Disparities of Cancer Postbaccalaureate Training Program, which she brought to Augusta University last summer. She previously founded the Tumor Biology Program at the Mayo Clinic.