UW-Madison expert researches cancer with sharks

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Milwaukee (CBS 58) -- Although most would consider them scary, one researcher at UW-Madison is actually using sharks to help people.

The UW Carbone Cancer Center provided equipment, including a shark tank, for new faculty member Dr. Aaron LeBeau, an associate professor of pathology and radiology, at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

LeBeau will be looking into shark-based cancer research, which, according to UW-Madison, is currently the only research of its kind worldwide. 

"Sharks are widely misunderstood," LeBeau said. "I anticipate many fascinating discoveries in the years to come based on my recent research."

LeBeau and his colleagues are using nurse sharks to investigate if and how proteins called Variable New Antigen Receptors, or VNARs, can be used to treat various forms of cancer. VNARs are part of the immune system of sharks and can be engineered to target anything of interest including viruses, bacteria or a cancer cell.

In the Department of Radiology, LeBeau and his colleagues are currently looking into the use of VNARs for nuclear imaging to more accurately detect cancer and to monitor for disease recurrence. LeBeau said that because sharks and their immune systems are so old, evolutionarily, doctors could use VNARs to treat cancer as well.

"What we are trying to do is harness the weird properties of VNARs to create agents that recognize and bind tightly to cancer cells," LeBeau said. VNARs "could lead to better methods of detection and destruction of cancer cells."

LeBeau is no stranger to research through different animals. In 2019, he worked in Minnesota investigating how animal cells from llamas and alpacas could be used to identify and target prostate cancer cells.

More recently however, LeBeau turned his eye to COVID-19 and studied how VNARs can "prevent the virus that causes COVID-19, its variants and related coronaviruses from infecting human cells." According to his research, VNARs likely won't be available to treat people now, but could be used to help prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks. 

"My ultimate goal at the end of the day is to give hope to those who have no hope," LeBeau said. 

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