By Meghan Chua
Through their research, graduate students in the Department of Medical Physics work toward improving cancer treatments, fine-tuning the amount of radiation therapy delivered to patients, designing ways to make treatment even more precise, and collaborating with other researchers across campus.
In September, the students will tackle the problem of cancer from another angle: helping fund cancer research by participating in The Ride.
The Ride, now in its fourth year, raises money for cancer research at UW–Madison. Since it began, it has already raised nearly $1 million, funding over 30 professors, programs, and students across campus – including many in Medical Physics.
“We do these rides and then the money comes straight back to some [of our] close colleagues. It’s really impactful,” said Reed Kolany, a second-year graduate student in Medical Physics who is organizing the graduate student team for this year’s Ride. Kolany is part of the Wisconsin Medical Radiation Research Center, where his work in radiation measurement helps ensure that equipment delivers the amount of radiation in the manufacturer’s description.
Faculty in the Medical Physics department pool donations to cover graduate students’ registration costs for the race, encouraging more students to participate. Kolany said doing the event with other grad students is a good team-building opportunity.
“It’s really good to see what people can do outside of the department. We all see each other at work and see what we can contribute in terms of research and academics, but it’s really good to see what people can contribute outside of that,” he said.
The graduate students who participate raise funds for cancer research from their professional and personal networks. Last year, the Medical Physics team placed top five in fundraising among UW-affiliated teams. This year, their fundraising goal is $5,000.
PhD student Sydney Jupitz was the Medical Physics team’s top fundraiser in 2018. Jupitz said the event raises money for a great cause.
“It comes straight back to Wisconsin, so you know where your money is going,” she said. “There are a lot of people working on cancer research that are putting the money to good use.”
For Jupitz, last year’s Ride came at a time when her grandmother was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Plus, the event happens around the time of her grandmother’s birthday. So, Jupitz’s family was very involved in donating money, both because of her grandmother’s treatments and because it helped them support Jupitz and her department at UW–Madison. She rode the 62-mile route with a slogan, “Pedals for Patsy”, in honor of her grandmother.
In the lab, Jupitz is helping develop an ultrasound-based image-guided radiotherapy system. Natural motion from breathing can cause treatments to be less precise. Jupitz works with Bryan Bednarz, an associate professor in Medical Physics and Human Oncology who has received funding raised from The Ride, to implement an ultrasound system into the treatment workflow so that doctors can, in real time, track the area that needs treatment.
Another recipient of money raised through The Ride is Ian Marsh, a PhD student in Medical Physics who is also advised by Bednarz. Marsh specializes in determining the doses of radiation delivered to patients through tumor-seeking drugs, known as targeted radionuclide therapy. These therapies are aimed at patients with widespread metastatic diseases, which are the hardest to treat.
As a Ride scholar, Marsh works with Professor Paul Harari in the Department of Human Oncology to combine targeted radionuclide therapy with conventional approaches that deliver radiation from an external beam to the patient.
“One of the benefits is that you can spread out the dose a bit and get a better distribution, maybe reduce the toxicity in the patient by combining these two therapies,” Marsh said. “There’s kind of this synergistic effect when you put the two together. So, it’s a really promising project.”
Researchers in Medical Physics often collaborate with colleagues across campus whose expertise complement one another’s, such as specialists in radiation oncology, human oncology, and pharmacy. At UW–Madison, this brings together top-tier experts and researchers to advance cancer treatments.
“It’s an awesome opportunity working in Medical Physics because you have the ability to see what everyone’s working on, see all these new therapies being developed, and work with all these brilliant doctors,” Marsh said. “Our lab can’t develop these therapies alone, but in collaboration with all these other groups, we’re able to achieve something more.”
Last year, Marsh rode the 17-mile course in The Ride, which offers courses ranging from three to 100 miles – all winding through beautiful Wisconsin farmland.
“It was just a great experience,” Marsh said. “It was really my first bike race and it was fun and exciting. You don’t feel pressured to race anyone. It’s just a nice ride.”
Marsh plans to ride again in September. As someone who grew up in Madison, he noted the local nature of the cause.
“Having grown up in Madison and having had friends and family struggle with cancer, it’s awesome to be able to support a cause that directly and immediately impacts this community,” he said. “These are the same doctors that are helping your family, your friends, and your neighbors in their fight against cancer.”