UW scientists launch novel cancer research using sharks

MADISON, Wis. — When you think about sharks, it might be easy to picture a scene out of Jaws. Scientists, though, say sharks are misunderstood and may hold the secret to previously-unknown treatments for cancer and COVID-19.

In an aquatic lab in Madison, four juvenile nurse sharks swim comfortably in a new tank built specifically for them. They are not wild sharks.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that antibody-like proteins from sharks are highly effective at neutralizing coronaviruses, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Dr. Aaron LeBeau, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, is leading shark-based cancer research, which is currently the only research of its kind worldwide.

“Sharks have been around for almost a billion years on earth and survived five mass extinction events, so they’re definitely survivors,” LeBeau said. “They have very robust immune systems that pre-date ours by hundreds of millions of years. They have very small antibodies. These antibodies, called VNARs for short, are a fraction of the size of human antibodies, but they’re more efficient at engaging their target of interest.”

LeBeau and his lab teamed up with researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Scottish biotech company Elasmogen to develop the shark antibodies for therapeutic use.

“Within 10 years, we’ll have either a shark antibody therapeutic or a diagnostic for imaging cancer in humans,” LeBeau said.

The shark tank was paid for by philanthropic donations and the UW Carbone Cancer Center.

It’s ironic that the money raised to get the sharks in the water began in the water with a fundraising effort by Mary Gooze.

“When you see the statistics, it’s amazing that I’m still here,” Gooze said.

In 2012, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“I thought I was done,” Gooze said.

Eighteen months after her initial diagnosis, Mary learned her cancer had spread. She decided to start swimming across waters near and far to raise money for metastatic breast cancer research.

Aided by her husband Rob Gooze and an array of supporters and admirers, Mary has helped raise more than $1.7 million for research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, including for Dr. LeBeau’s shark tank.

“I ended up swimming across 53 lakes or bodies of water,” Gooze said. “What a connection of all things, the swimming and the sharks. I was able to go talk to Dr. LeBeau and meet the sharks and actually touch the sharks and feed them. It was quite the experience.”

Gooze learned that while breast cancer is much on the public’s radar, stage-four research is underfunded. Less than 7% of research dollars go toward metastatic breast cancer even though nearly 30% of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will develop metastatic recurrence.

“The goal is always to find a cure or at least to make it chronic,” Gooze said. “If not for me, for my children, my daughter and granddaughters so they won’t ever have to go through this down the road.”