Sharks used as part of a cancer research study.

UW–Madison expert launches novel cancer research using sharks

There are some new residents on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, but they aren’t students, they’re sharks.

By Emily Kumlien, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Though it might be easy to picture a scene out of “Jaws,” these sharks have arrived to help humans, not hunt them. In fact, the sharks will be integral to research focused on therapies for diseases such as cancer. 

In 2021, the UW Carbone Cancer Center was able to provide the necessary equipment, including the shark tank, for new UW Carbone faculty member Dr. Aaron LeBeau, an associate professor of pathology and lab medicine, and radiology, at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He will be leading the shark-based cancer research, which is currently the only research of its kind worldwide.

“I’m really looking forward to working with these animals long term,” LeBeau said. “Sharks are widely misunderstood. A lot of people are scared of sharks, yet still fascinated by them. Our sharks are friendly and curious! They are excited to see us and love to play with us. I anticipate many fascinating discoveries in the years to come based on my recent research.”

He and his colleagues are currently investigating if and how tiny proteins called Variable New Antigen Receptors or VNARs can be used to treat devastating cancers such as breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers. One particularly useful characteristic of VNARs, which are part of the adaptive immune system of sharks, is that they can be engineered to recognize any target of interest whether that target is a virus, bacteria or a cancer cell. Read more …