Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Leslie Wooten-Blanks received the American Association for Cancer Research Minority Serving Institution Faculty Scholar Award in Chicago this month.
For Wooten-Blanks the journey to this acknowledgement began at the very early age of six when she told her parents she wanted to teach science and cure cancer. The Tennessee native has completed the teaching science part, however the curing cancer element is still under research.
This particular research is highly personal for Wooten-Blanks. The deaths of her grandparents, Leslie and Lena, from cancer and the fact her mother, Sharon, survived it twice were the impetus for Wooten-Blanks joining this line of work.
“I used to read my parents’ biology books. I love those books growing up,” she said.
Now, she loves being in the lab with her students conducting potentially groundbreaking research with chemotherapy for breast and prostate cancer.
At the center of Wooten-Blanks’ experimentation is the enzyme telomerase, which elongates chromosomes and makes cells able to divide indefinitely. Her hypothesis is that if a less harmful chemotherapy treatment can decrease telomerase activity, then cancer cells can’t metastasize and will eventually die out.
“We want to find the right combination for an effective and less painful treatment,” Wooten-Blanks said. “The best hope is we can reduce the amount (of chemotherapy) needed for patients so the side effects will be much less severe.”
The journey now realized by a six-year-old girl didn’t come without a few speed bumps.
Growing up in Fort Payne, Alabama near the Tennessee border, her father, Charles, received a job in Tallahassee, Florida. Wooten-Blanks attended Florida A&M University and later enrolled in the dentistry program at Medical University of South Carolina.
But an accident that fractured her skull caused her complete amnesia for an extended period. She withdrew from the dentistry program at MUSC and became a receptionist. After talking with her former professor, Dr. Barry Ledford who led the graduate programs at the Charleston institution, she decided to apply and was accepted back. Wooten-Blanks progressed through earning her doctorate as a single mom to her daughter, Lesley who is now 16.
The hard road to academia has only strengthened her dedication to researching cancer treatments.
“It was a very hard road with several failures,” said Wooten-Blanks.
The recent research award has demonstrated to her that no obstacle is too great to overcome – including the possibility of developing potentially game changing cancer treatments.
During the AACR conference held March 31 through April 4, she even got to rub elbows with actor Terrance Howard, who delivered the Chicago event’s keynote address. The conference hosted more than 17,000 attendees from around the globe. Wooten-Blanks was particularly happy to meet Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, a pioneer in the field of chemotherapy. “That was very exciting,” she said.