Release Date: August 1, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Remi Adelaiye-Ogala, PhD, knows that choosing a career in science requires a thick skin. An assistant professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, Adelaiye-Ogala is familiar with the ups and downs of competing for grants and peer review, not to mention the uncertainties of microscopic worlds that don’t yield their secrets easily.
That’s why when she saw the email from the National Institutes of Health with the decision about her R01 application, she was determined not to open it right away.
“When I saw the email, the first thing I did was download every form of affirmative message on my phone,” she says, laughing. “I told myself I wasn’t going to open it and check the status until I got home at night and gave the kids their food. So, if my impact score fell outside the ‘fundable range,’ I would read my affirmative messages and then go to bed so I wouldn’t feel down all day.”
Such precautions turned out to be unnecessary. She wanted nothing more than to hit what’s called the NIH payline, which would mean that she would receive her award; when an application scores a certain percentile but doesn’t make the payline, NIH will sometimes give the scientist an opportunity to make their case again or they may be encouraged to resubmit.
When Adelaiye-Ogala finally clicked the link to see her grant score, she found she had not only reached the payline and received the grant, but it was ranked in the top two percentile of grant applications reviewed. That means that the NIH reviewers ranked her work among the most promising of all grant applications in that cycle, a serious accomplishment for any researcher but all the more so for such a young scientist.
“I was so excited that I got scored with a good percentile,” she says. “It was just amazing. I was screaming. My oldest daughter heard me, and she said ‘Mommy? Are you OK?’ It was definitely a great moment.”
Because her R01 was ranked so highly, the grant will provide her with research support for seven years as a MERIT R37 Award, instead of five.
Drug-resistance in prostate cancer
The grant supports Adelaiye-Ogala’s research on unraveling the roots of advanced or aggressive prostate cancer.
“If it’s detected at early stages, the survival rate for prostate cancer is close to 100%,” she explains, “but worldwide, it’s the second-most common cancer-related cause of death in men after lung cancer. This is usually associated with aggressive disease and acquired resistance to current treatments available in the clinic. My grant is focused on this group.”
Adelaiye-Ogala adds that advanced disease often happens after an initial period when the tumor has been responsive to therapies but then becomes resistant.
“At that point, options for treatment are very slim,” she says. “So what this grant proposes is to holistically investigate mechanisms driving treatment-resistant prostate cancer. We have identified some novel targets that we think may be driving resistance. Through this grant, we will be able to develop optimal strategies to target these novel drivers.”
The goal is to discover which therapeutic options may be able to re-sensitize the tumors to currently available drugs or kill the tumor altogether.
“This is a team science effort,” Adelaiye-Ogala notes. “My grant brings together basic scientists, oncologists, bioinformaticians, statisticians and clinical scientists who are experts in their different fields with converging interests focused on this one goal. If we are successful, we will be able to translate our research findings into the clinic.”
Inspired to do cancer research
In a sense, the potential for clinical success brings Adelaiye-Ogala’s career aspirations full circle. A native of Nigeria and the daughter of two physicians, she came to the U.S. to study at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Uncertain about whether she wanted to pursue medicine or research, she began to work in the lab of biology professor Ted Lee, PhD.
She also took an inaugural cancer biology seminar, which included an opportunity to visit genomics research labs at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. That visit made an impression on Adelaiye-Ogala: Upon graduation, she got a job at Roswell as a lab technician.
“It was at Roswell that I got the inspiration to focus on cancer research,” she says. “I think it’s because of the proximity of the research laboratories to the hospital. You get to see how the work you do in the lab could potentially impact a patient’s outcome.”
She decided to pursue a Roswell/UB doctorate. During her third year, her thesis adviser, Roberto Pili, MD, (now associate dean for cancer research and integrative oncology at UB) moved to Indiana University; she needed to decide whether she wanted to go to Indiana for her final year or find a new adviser at Roswell. She said the faculty at both Roswell and UB were very supportive. So with the strong support of Pili, all the members of her thesis committee, as well as her department head and other Roswell/UB faculty, Adelaiye-Ogala moved to Indiana to finish her PhD.
“I came back here the following year with my new baby and defended my thesis. Yes, I was working on my thesis while I was pregnant, so I think it was a joint effort,” she adds, laughing. “Every time I look back, I just can’t imagine how I did it, but when you are faced with a situation, I don’t know if it’s just the adrenaline, but you feel like since you have come this far, you are going to finish. I also had the support of my mentors, family, friends and even my labmates through the process and I believe that helped.”
Adelaiye-Ogala then spent three years doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, focusing on genitourinary cancers, specifically prostate cancer.
While she had opportunities to continue as an independent investigator at the NCI, Adelaiye-Ogala considered UB to be her best option. She notes: “In addition to the excellent research environment at the Jacobs School and the Clinical and Translational Research Center at UB, my husband, a UK-trained physician, had a great opportunity to practice in Canada, so with an offer from UB it worked out perfectly for us as a family.”
Looking for a place where new ideas are encouraged
At the same time, Adelaiye-Ogala was looking for a place where she could grow as an investigator. “I was looking for a place where I could see growth, where new ideas are encouraged and embraced,” she says.
Having trained in Buffalo, she was aware of the energy and excitement around biomedical research at UB and Roswell Park. The more she read about UB, the more she was intrigued.
“While it’s good to be in an established research environment, I also want to be part of the process that shapes new ideas and pushes the frontier in research excellence, where I can look back and see how these ideas have flourished,” she says. “I also want to be involved in the community and not in the lab always. I could see that there is a lot of community engagement in the Jacobs School and that was quite attractive to me.”
Adelaiye-Ogala started at UB in 2021 as a research assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and became a tenure-track assistant professor in 2022.
“We are delighted that Remi chose to continue her career at UB,” says Pili, also a physician with UBMD Internal Medicine. “She brings an infectious energy to her science and to the division, and we eagerly anticipate how her work will advance the understanding of aggressive and resistant prostate cancer.”
Adelaiye-Ogala says she is impressed with UB’s emphasis on outreach to the community through the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, something she is committed to doing as her research proceeds.
“Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the USA and second globally,” she says. “African American men or men of African ancestry have the most aggressive type of prostate cancer, and have the highest death rates from prostate cancer. This is why I chose to study prostate cancer. So our research now also includes models for prostate cancer that represent the underrepresented groups, especially African American men.”
She will also be working to better communicate her research to people in the community.
“I want to be able to tell people in the Buffalo community and beyond, ‘This is the kind of work we are doing and why it matters,’” she says. “Through the Division of Hematology and Oncology’s community outreach and health equity cancer research program, I’d like to communicate the research we do beyond the academic space, to educate the community on the ways we try to understand aggressive prostate cancers and the potential treatment strategies that can improve clinical outcomes.”
Asked if she had advice for other young scientists, she notes that it’s important to have great mentors who would advocate, encourage and guide you through the challenges in this field.
“The path to success in science is not a straight road,” she says. “It’s a very bumpy road of failures and successes. I was, and still am, very fortunate to have great mentors who have guided me and provided tremendous support through the trajectory of my research career. Also, you have to give yourself opportunities to reflect on your successes, especially on days when your experiments fail. You should always be able to look back on what you’ve achieved. It can encourage you to think and say on that cloudy day, ‘I did this, even with all of this struggle, I think today is OK. I’ll overcome again.’ I encourage others to find good mentors that have your best interest and are ready to support and advocate for you through your journey.”