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Biology alum returns as professor ready to tackle cancer research

ORU students dream of changing the world — solving global hunger, creating world peace or maybe even finding a cure for cancer.

One student followed his dream. Now he’s back to teach students how to do the same.

Dr. William Ranahan, a 2005 biology grad, recently joined the ORU Biology and Chemistry Department as a professor of genetics and biology.

College of Science and Engineering Dean Kenneth Weed had Ranahan as one of his first students.

“He was one of the students who challenged me, asking — ‘How is my science different because I’m a Christian?’ — a question I ask myself all the time,” Weed said. “What makes taking a biology course here different from other universities? How do we approach our science as Christians?”

After graduating from ORU, Ranahan moved to Seattle to work for ZymoGenetics, a biotechnology company.

Later Ranahan and his wife moved to New Hampshire where he applied to Boston-area graduate programs but received no responses. He applied to the Indiana University School of Medicine as a lab technician and was hired.

After working as a technician, Ranahan began grad school to obtain his doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology, while in the lab with a biochemist engaged in experimental research.

“I was very interested in breast cancer  because it has applications to a lot of different cancer types,” Ranahan said. “My adviser let me take off in that direction.”

Typically, cancer cells are grown and manipulated on plastic dishes for research, but this was not the best model for breast cells.

“Breast cancer is a glandular,” Ranahan said. “We needed a better model system to study breast cancer.”

Ranahan employed a 3-D matrix and injected mammary cells into a gel. This allowed the cells to form a ductal network, just as they would in the human body.

By treating the ducts with hormones like prolactin, these ducts would secrete milk proteins. He discovered that if he put a protein into healthy, normal cells, the ducts grew to be three times bigger than normal ducts, and they no longer had the hollow
center a mammary cell should.

“We showed that with this one protein over expressed, you can push normal, healthy cells to look like the early stages of tumors,” Ranahan added.

Next, he targeted the cancer cells by knocking out this specific protein. He found when this protein gene was silenced, the cancer cells died.

From his cutting edge data, Ranahan had discovered a potential novel target for breast cancer.

His lab wrote a grant and received $4 million to continue research. He then expanded his research to almost every type of cancer because this particular protein regulates a pathway of growth to every organ in the body.

Through this research, the possibility exists to define a new target to treat numerous types of cancer.

Multiple awards and national presentations followed.

Doors to Harvard and UC Berkeley opened, and his adviser collaborated with other sectors of academia and industry.

He had no idea where his life would take him until he heard of a job opening in the biology department at ORU.

His college adviser, Dr. Sarah Myer was leaving to do missionary work.

With his family settled and well-established in their church and community in Indiana, moving was “unthinkable,” Ranahan said.

Yet, after much prayer and thought, Ranahan and his wife decided to move their two children to Tulsa for the new position.

“It just kept getting confirmed over and over again,” Ranahan said. “So I told my lab adviser and committee that instead of going to Ivy League schools and doing the dream, I’m going to teach.”

He didn’t realize that the dream would continue on an even larger scale.

“We are actually set up here to do research. I wasn’t expecting that. We have the equipment and are currently securing internal funds,” Ranahan said. “Oral Roberts’ dream was to bring healing and faith together here at ORU, to cure cancer.”

Junior biology major Shelby Reynolds feels Ranahan wants to see students succeed.

“He wants to teach us the skills we will need in grad school and beyond,” Reynolds said.

“I want to teach students to do real cancer research, to develop that dialogue and to be led by the voice of God,” Ranahan said. “That is my passion.”

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