St. Olaf College | News

Closer to a cure: Alumnus’s cancer research gains attention

Branden Moriarity ’07 has devoted his career to researching childhood cancers. After seven years in the labs of the University of Minnesota, he and his research colleagues have possibly made a breakthrough in halting osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor found in children and adolescents.

“Everyone knows someone who’s had cancer; it affects everyone, and that’s what drove me into the field of cancer research,” Moriarity says.

His research has been featured by media outlets including KARE 11 News, the Pioneer Press, and Twin Cities Business Magazine. He received the 2018 Educational Opportunity Association (EOA) TRIO Achievers award for the impact he has made in his field, and the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career named Moriarity and his wife, forensic scientist Erin Moriarity ’06,¬† the keynote speakers for Ole STEM 2019.

Branden Moriarity ’07 giving his award acceptance speech during the Educational Opportunity Association’s TRIO Achiever luncheon.

If it wasn’t for the TRIO program, I definitely would not be where I am today.Branden Moriarity ’07

Currently an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology/Oncology, at the University of Minnesota, Moriarity graduated from St. Olaf College having majored in biology and chemistry, with a concentration in biomolecular sciences. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology, and Genetics at the University of Minnesota in 2012.

In 2014, using funding from Zach Sobiech’s Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the technology developed by Moriarity’s former mentor David Largaespda, the osteosarcoma research team discovered semaphorin 4D (SEMA4D), a gene that may cause osteosarcoma.

“Dr. Largaespada’s lab had developed a technology that allowed us to identify the genes that cause a given type of cancer,” Moriarity says. “It’s a very powerful technique.”

As the lead author, Moriarity published their findings in the Nature Genetics journal, and was soon contacted by officials at the biotechnology company Vaccinex, based in Rochester, New York. They shared information on an experimental antibody they had developed that could block the activity of SEMA4D.

SEMA4D is a protein that has many roles in human development and homeostasis. It regulates immune cells, and during development it helps neurons find their path. By blocking SEMA4D signaling, the antibody shuts down the communication telling cancer cells to grow and move. Furthermore, the antibody activates a productive immune response to fight off the cancer.

“The other thing about it is that it’s not chemotherapy at all,” Moriarity says. “In antibody therapy, you don’t get any of the toxic side effects that you do with chemotherapy. Basically, people can typically come and get this therapy and go home.”

In collaboration with the Children’s Oncology Group, this research is being used in a clinical trial to treat osteosarcoma patients across the U.S. in ¬†more than 20 institutes.

“If it does anything positive, that will be a step in the right direction,” Moriarity says. “It’s pretty rare that a single agent therapy is curative, but any positive impact would be outstanding because then we could combine the therapy with other non-chemotherapy approaches, or immune checkpoint treatments.”

Moriarity says the TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program at St. Olaf really set him on this path of cancer research. Through St. Olaf, Moriarity discovered his love of research through work he did in the Chemistry Department and upon studying abroad with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Scholars Program and the college’s Biology in South India program.

“Through SSS I had to take a biology course before I started as a freshman, and I found out that I really like science. During my time at St. Olaf, I learned that I was very interested in research, so I did research in the Chemistry Department and twice abroad,” Moriarity says. “If it wasn’t for the TRIO program, I definitely would not be where I am today.”