Trial Runs

Drs. Villano and Kolesar


In September 2023, the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center’s researchers and doctors celebrated a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the highest level of recognition in the field, based on excellence in research and prevention of cancer.

Markey continues to make strides through interventional trials, which translate the doctors’ and researchers’ science from the lab to the patients in the clinic. And according to clinicians, these trials may allow patients to receive faster and more effective treatment.

Jill Kolesar, Pharm.D., a university research professor of pharmacy, is one of the researchers leading the award-winning initiatives. Dr. Kolesar began her career as a first-generation college student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After seeing a public access television program about tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes and the immunology of cancer, she knew cancer research was her next career goal.

The Translational Oncology Program at the Markey Cancer Center gained the talented researcher in 2016. While at Markey, Dr. Kolesar and her team’s primary goals are to integrate cancer discoveries produced in the lab from the researchers into the hands of the doctors – and then to the patient – in the clinic.

Dr Kolesar works with student in the lab
Jill Kolesar, Pharm.D., works with a research assistant in her lab.

From Clinic to Community

New cancer discoveries can take up to 30 years from the beginning stages of research in the lab to being available to the community as a viable treatment option. Dr. Kolesar and her team aim to accelerate the process with the Molecular Tumor Board, a statewide service available for “clinicians, pathologists and scientists to discuss and analyze tumor genotypes and molecular abnormalities to recommend patientspecific targeted therapies,” according to the Markey Cancer Center website.

“We started the Molecular Tumor Board to help treating physicians interpret [genomic] reports, and develop treatment plans for their patients,” said Dr. Kolesar. “The goal of the project is for people treated in the community to get the same care that they can get at an academic medical center.”

Dr. Kolesar explains that if patients agree to clinical trials with genomic testing that receive a targeted therapy, as recommended by the Molecular Tumor Board, they have better outcomes according to her published research. In a study evaluating the Molecular Tumor Board, most patients lived longer on a Molecular Tumor Boardrecommended treatment.

For example, the PRiMAL study – Precision Medicine Randomized Clinical Trial Comparing Molecular Tumor Board Assisted Care to Usual Care – started in April 2022 and currently has around 150 participants. This trial compares Molecular Tumor Board-assisted care to usual care for patients who have newly diagnosed histologically or cytologically confirmed stage IIb-IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC) and are planning to undergo treatment for their cancer.

The study will compare survival rates between the two groups as well as the quality of life within a one-year time frame. This trial has gone out into the community through the Markey Cancer Center Research Network (MCCRN). The MCCRN conducts studies initiated by Markey’s own doctors and scientists as well as national studies available through the Markey Cancer Center’s membership in the National Cancer Institute’s National Clinical Trials Network.

“My only goal is to help people,” she said. “I feel fortunate that we have developed these advances during my career and that I can contribute to them.”

“I’m lucky that things we used to just dream about, think about, and study in our laboratory are actually in the clinic and community.”

Jill Kolesar, Pharm.D.

Dr. John Villano talks with patient
John Villano, M.D., Ph.D., works with a Markey patient participating in a precision medicine trial.

New Therapies in Kentucky

John Villano, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the Precision Medicine Clinic, leads doctors and researchers through clinical research, clinical trials, and computer control groups at the Markey Cancer Center.

Dr. Villano has a long-term interest in the scientific and medical arena. Still, his residency at the University of Michigan Medical Center is what drew him into the oncology portion of neuro-oncology.

Since joining Markey in 2012, he has specialized in brain tumors, as well as lung cancers, which frequently spread into the brain. Dr. Villano and his team work to find advancements in genomics and target therapies to help Kentuckians find relief in their oncology journey.

“We want our patients in the Kentucky region to not have to travel very far to get the best research and clinical trials,” said Dr. Villano. “We want to not only provide drug discovery but opportunities for research to bring new therapeutic treatments to larger and unique patient populations.”

sweet annie crop
Sweet Annie, a plant used in antimalarial medicine, is grown in Kentucky and tested in trials for its anti-cancer capabilities.

The state of Kentucky provides a unique opportunity to develop new cancer treatments. Dr. Kolesar and her team are working with a company that is growing the plant Sweet Annie, the source of a commonly-used anti-malarial medication. Historically grown in China, India and Africa, it is now being evaluated as a replacement crop for tobacco in Kentucky. Dr. Kolesar’s team has translated Sweet Annie from Kentucky fields to the University of Kentucky lab, demonstrating the anticancer activity of this plant, and it is now into Markey clinics with ongoing clinical trials in ovarian and prostate cancer.

“My real goal is to help people,” said Dr. Kolesar. “It’s critical for me to do something tangible that helps people. That’s why I go to work every day.”

Dr. Villano credits the university for being able to provide the research and conduct the many studies it takes to conquer the different types of cancer and provide improvement to the lives of oncology patients.

“There are so many quality-of-life components to cancer care that we sometimes forget,” said Dr. Villano. “This includes how patients could benefit from new research methods on investigational drugs and unique therapies. We want to provide a method of evaluating and understanding this process so we can benefit not only a patient’s cancer treatment but also their quality of life.”

Researchers and providers at Markey Cancer Center continue leading aspects of cancer research with its newest NCI comprehensive designation. “We live in a unique period of cancer research and therapeutics,” said Dr. Villano.

“When I started my involvement in cancer care, patients were living in a timeframe of a year or two years, or even seasons, but now patients are living numerous years and potentially cured.”

John Villano, M.D., Ph.D.

“We want patients who have cancer to be treated and live a good quality life as long as they can.”

The research staff and providers have the same universal goal. “We want to conquer cancer in the Commonwealth, and to improve cancer outcomes for people in Kentucky and beyond,” said Dr. Kolesar.

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