Local scientist breaking ground in cancer research

A local woman who gave up a budding music career to focus on science is today breaking new ground in cancer research.

Ruth Gjerset, a scientist at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center on La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Mesa, attended UCSD as an undergrad. She played violin in the La Jolla Civic Orchestra (now known as La Jolla Symphony), but gave the instrument up to focus on science. Anyone interested in the battle against cancer should be glad she made the choice. Gjerset recently received a $100,000 grant from the Joan Scarangello Foundation to support her work using gene therapy as a way to suppress the growth of tumors.

A native San Diegan, Gjerset graduated from Point Loma High School before moving on to UCSD. Her love of music and the violin began early in her life and took off when she reached UCSD.

“I played violin a lot growing up,” she said. “I was very active with it in high school.”

She joined a quartet upon arriving at UCSD in the early 1970s and soon was playing with the La Jolla Civic Orchestra, which rehearsed regularly on campus. The orchestra put on two or three big shows per year, often at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium on Prospect Street. Pursuing a biology degree while also studying music was a difficult endeavor that stretched Gjerset thin during her time at school. It was an arrangement she knew she could not maintain as she moved forward into her adult life.

“Music is really demanding if you want to do a good job of it - that’s one reason why I gave it up,” she said. “I couldn’t do both, it’s just very difficult to make the time.”

Gjerset moved on to graduate studies at the UC San Francisco Medical School’s department of biochemistry. From there, she went on to postdoctorate studies at the Pasteur Institute in Paris for three years, then returned to San Francisco for several years. She eventually returned to San Diego and has been at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center for 15 years.

Her recent grant award will support her research in tumor suppressor gene therapy. Tumor suppressor genes help prevent cells from becoming cancerous, and Gjerset’s research is aimed at finding new ways to deliver tumor suppressors to cells that have lost them.

“One of the main obstacles is finding a way to deliver the genes so that they go to all the metastatic sites,” she said. “Presently, they are delivered directly into the tumor, but for many kinds of cancer that is not possible because the tumors aren’t accessible.”

Gjerset is attempting to develop a way to deliver tumor suppressors using mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from bone marrow.

The mesenchymal stem cells would serve to deliver viruses containing the tumor suppressing genes to cancerous cells if Gjerset’s approach is successful.

“We’re using the (mesenchymal stem) cells to package and deliver these viral vectors through the blood stream,” she said. “The vectors themselves elicit an immune response, but the cells don’t - so we can hide them, in a sense.”

Gjerset’s research represents an entirely new approach to tumor suppressor gene therapy and is considered especially promising because the stem cells would find their own way to cancerous cells in the body.

“They contribute to repair tissues and will emigrate preferentially into tumor sites,” Gjerset said.

Gjerset said she has been interested in gene therapy for many years and said that her particular type of research is not being done by many other scientists.

“There’s not a lot of people or other groups working on this kind of approach,” she said. “I know of a group at the University of Alabama.”

Gjerset lives in University City and said she enjoys living among the heavy concentration of UCSD students there.

“It’s very animated. I like the college environment,” she said.

Her main interests outside of science include Tai Chi and yoga, ways to unwind from the long hours she keeps in the lab. She said the total committment required by science was one of the things that appealed to her.

“I don’t want to put an hour figure on it, but it’s very time-consuming.”