Cancer runs deep in Julia Carter’s family. By the time she was in her 20s, 18 aunts and uncles had suffered from some form of the disease. Both her mother and father succumbed to it, and eventually, so did her husband, Harry, at the age of 67.
That history, and the realization that she could so something about it, helps explain her dedication to fighting the disease. Forty years ago, with little more than their considerable knowledge and some office equipment, Julia and Harry Carter started the Wood Hudson Cancer Research Laboratory, dedicated to search out the root causes of the No. 2 killer in the United States.
For 30 of those years, that independent, not-for-profit research lab has been located in an old school in the urban heart of Newport, advancing research into some of the most deadly forms of the disease, as well as educating the next-generation of researchers and cancer fighters.
Over the years, Wood Hudson researchers have worked with corporations and government agencies, contributed 150 scientific reports at international meetings of scientists, and nearly 350 high school and college students have gained hands-on experience through its undergraduate research program.
Dr. Carter is characteristically understated about the achievements. “We’ve done quite a bit in 40 years,” she says.
It started when she was a senior at Wellesley College, the liberal arts school in Massachusetts, and a summer internship at the Cancer Research Institute of New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where she worked with pathologists and other scientists.
“It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I just became thrilled with cancer research, realizing you could do something about it.”
She earned a Ph.D. at Rutgers University and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, now a National Cancer Institute- designated academic cancer center. She met her husband, and they moved to Cleveland following postdoctoral work. There, she was dismayed at the lack of cancer research going on, and decided to start her own lab.
It was a shoestring operation at first. “We had a microscope, we had a refrigerator, a typewriter, and a file cabinet,” she says. “With those four pieces of equipment, we started the lab.”
The new lab needed a name. “I had grown up with my father’s family and my mother’s family dying of cancer,” she said. “I had 18 aunts and uncles that had cancer. I just said ‘Wood Hudson,’ named after my father and mother’s families.”
Harry was recruited by St. Elizabeth Healthcare to be a director of pathology, and the family moved to Northern Kentucky in 1984. They moved the lab too, initially setting it up in a former drug store on Greenup Street in Covington.
As it grew, they needed more space. Laura Long, Newport’s former economic development director, approached Julia with the idea to move into the former site of Corpus Christi School on Isabella Street in Newport’s Buena Vista neighborhood.
With a bank loan and a city bond issue, they were able to renovate the school and outfit it for laboratory work. In 2012, a 7,500-square foot addition was built.
The lab houses a large collection of tissue specimens that are donated by St. E’s, a collection that is critical to its work.
“We study those tissues, anonymously, and as a result, we can study tumors of almost any origin or tissue,” she says. “It’s an unusual collection.”
Part of the lab’s work is studying carcinogenesis, how cancer cells form, what causes that, and how cancer cells differ from normal cells. Much cancer research is conducted using animal cell models or other models, “but the fact is, that whatever model you’re looking at is not the real disease,” Carter says.
“Starting out, I wanted to study cancer in human beings,” she says. “And how do you get at its Achilles heel to stop its progression. It’s very important to be looking at human tissue to be looking at the real disease and not just a model.”
Wood Hudson has collaborated with government and private business in research studies, including a 16-year project with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, assessing safe levels of drinking water chlorination.
One of Wood Hudson’s signature efforts is helping to educate the next generation of researchers through its Undergraduate Research Education Program. Students have applied from many different colleges, including Xavier University, University of Kentucky, and University of Louisville, often earning college credit for the work.
They stain and examine tissue samples, and review the results with a professional pathologist. They give presentations, write papers and reports, and work on the National Cancer Institute’s “Provocative Questions” initiative designed to stimulate cancer research. Last summer’s program was conducted virtually because of the pandemic.
More than 100 former students are now physicians or Ph.D.-level research scientists, Carter says. Others are nurses, hospital administrators, teachers, and laboratory scientists.
One of last summer’s students, Ashwin Menon, was invited to present the results of his project at the virtual Kentucky Academy of Science annual meeting in November.
Ashwin, of Independence, is a high school senior at Gatton Academy, an early college-entrance program at Western Kentucky University. He researched one of the NCI’s Provocative Questions – “How do selective pressures affect cell competition during cancer initiation and development?”
Using mathematical modeling, he examined the hypothesis that competition between subsets of tumor cells can slow tumor growth. “It’s sort of like ‘united we stand, divided we fall,’” he says.
His participation in the Wood Hudson program was supported by a grant from the R. C. Durr Foundation. Wood Hudson has survived for 40 years partly through grants from foundations including the Haile Foundation, the I Have Wings Breast Cancer Foundation, Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky, and others, as well as many individual donors, some of whom make donations in honor of family members who are survivors of the disease or who have died from it.
The Carters also invested in real estate in the neighborhood to support their work. About 30 years ago, a grant from the Hearst Foundation was used to buy two houses, which were converted to rentals. A neighboring building that once housed a convent was also renovated with volunteer labor and supplies, and turned into apartments for families.
Carter has plans to grow the research lab. She wants to continue building the endowment fund, and improve the not-for-profit’s cash flow. National foundations, she says, want to see sizable endowment funds before making grants. She also wants to recruit more scientists to broaden Wood Hudson’s professional staff.
Even after 40 years of exploring the boundaries of cancer research, she has no plans to hang up the lab coat and retire. About 600,000 people die from cancer each year. There is always more work to be done.