Health University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
Professor, Department of Oncological Sciences
Senior Director of Basic Science
Ralph E. and Willia T. Main Presidential Endowed Chair in Cancer Research
Developing a new strategy to improve the efficacy of immunotherapy in metastatic breast cancer.
Breast cancers can evade the body’s immune system, resulting in tumor resistance to therapy, recurrence, or metastasis. Many researchers are focused on harnessing the power of the immune system to eliminate breast cancer. Through laboratory studies, Dr. Welm has found a promising novel target for immunotherapy and key mediator of breast cancer metastasis—sfRON, a receptor tyrosine kinase. It influences the host immune system not the tumor itself and allows the tumor cells to escape immune surveillance and metastasize. Blocking sfRON prevented metastasis by increasing specific immune cells in early metastatic lesions. The team is now deciphering the mechanism of sfRON action and hopes their findings lead to a novel strategy to prevent metastasis.
There are several types of immune cells that perform different functions and develop based on cell signals—this process is called immune cell differentiation. Dr. Welm and her colleagues are testing the hypothesis that sfRON plays an important role in this process with a loss of sfRON resulting in immune cells differentiating to “T-helper cells” that enhance host immunity. Through laboratory experiments, they will determine if existing RON inhibitors can be used in combination with immunotherapy agents to help shift immune cell differentiation to more favorable T-helper cell subsets. Dr. Welm has developed laboratory models that recapitulate the metastatic tumor environment and will utilize these models to study the effects of RON inhibitors. She hopes the results of her research will warrant moving this combination strategy into the clinic for treating metastatic breast cancer.
Alana Welm, PhD holds the Ralph E. and Willia T. Main Presidential Endowed Chair in Cancer Research and is Senior Director of Basic Science at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. In addition, she serves on the Clinical Trials Protocol Development Committee to ensure inclusion of strong scientific correlative endpoints in all investigator-initiated clinical trials. She is also the principal investigator of an NCI U54 PDX Development and Trial Centers (the only one focused on breast cancer) and chairs the Scientific Advisory Board for the PDX-Integrator Group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Welm received her undergraduate degree in Microbiology from the University of Montana and completed a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at Baylor College of Medicine under the supervision of Gretchen Darlington. She then went on to conduct postdoctoral training in J. Michael Bishop’s laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, where her work focused on developing new models of breast cancer metastasis.
In 2007, Dr. Welm established a laboratory at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer and was subsequently promoted to associate professor with tenure (2013) and to full professor (2019). Her research focuses on metastatic breast cancer, investigating mechanisms by which cancer cells transition from a period of latent disease to metastatic outgrowth, and how the immune system controls that process. She also develops and utilizes patient-derived tumor models to understand breast tumor evolution during metastasis, to identify new therapeutic vulnerabilities in metastatic tumors, and to personalize therapy for breast cancer patients using functional drug testing in their tumor models. Dr. Welm has generously made these models available to the breast cancer research community at large.
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