Family Illness Leads Alum to Cancer Research

Lebanon Valley College alumna Mary Olanich

Like many LVC alumni before her, Dr. Mary Olanich ’05 is pursuing a career in cancer research. A biology and neurobiology major at The Valley who earned a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research and study in France, Olanich was influenced by a life event to transition from neuroscience to a different research area once she started her graduate training at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. 

“I kept thinking about my grandmother, who passed away from liver cancer only a few months after diagnosis,” said Olanich. “She presented with very mild symptoms at diagnosis, and I was interested in how a disease could be so quietly aggressive.”

This curiosity led Olanich to study the fundamentals of molecular oncology. Specifically, she chose a thesis mentor who studied a canonical tumor suppressor frequently inactivated in many human malignancies. She added additional knowledge and training during her post-doctoral training at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). 

Today, Olanich is the scientific manager at Leidos Biomedical Research Inc. in Rockville, Md., where she leads a molecular and digital pathology laboratory that fully supports investigators at the NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.  

“We are essentially a core facility, which allows me to collaborate with numerous scientists, work with multiple tumor types, and use the newest, cutting-edge technologies and instrumentation,” noted Olanich. “I manage a team of histologists, digital scientists, and pathologists, and we are fortunate to be deeply engaged in the science while facing less pressure to secure independent funding.” 

Olanich has a unique and helpful way of describing her often difficult-to-understand research to the general population.

“Tumor heterogeneity is a major challenge in cancer biology. If one thinks of a tumor as a fruit salad, it might be comprised of chopped strawberries, blueberries, grapes, and mangoes. In the past, the best we could do to molecularly characterize a tumor was to take that fruit salad, put it in a blender to make a smoothie, and then take part of the smoothie and sequence it. From sequencing data, we would learn the fruits present and their relative abundance, but that approach provided no spatial information. Spatial context, however, is important – it matters where the pieces of fruit are located. For example, a biopsy might sample from a region with only blueberries, and there could be negative prognostic or treatment implications for missing the other fruits present.” 

In January 2021, Nature Methods named spatially resolved transcriptomics as the Method of the Year 2020. 

“Spatially resolved transcriptomics allow us to detect the presence and numbers of strawberries, blueberries, grapes, and mangoes, and determine how they are arranged in relation to one another. My research group has added new spatial technology platforms to our laboratory, and I expect to see the fruits of our labor soon,” said Olanich with a laugh. 

Olanich also sees the potential of recent breakthroughs in immunotherapy, which “is treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society. Her lab also “has collaborated with several NCI investigators to interrogate and profile the tumor immune microenvironment in multiple cancer types, such as lung and breast. Characterization of a tumor’s immune profile aids in predicting responsiveness of the tumor to immunotherapy.”

“Immunotherapy holds remarkable promise, and various immunotherapies are approved to treat several types of cancer, said Olanich. “Investigation of ways to mitigate side effects, overcome resistance mechanisms, and predict clinical response are all active areas of cancer immunotherapy research.”