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Cieply dedicating his career to cancer research

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Dr. Benjamin Cieply

Dr. Benjamin Cieply admits he's occasionally dreamed of headlines screaming: “Rostraver man cures cancer.”

But the Belle Vernon Area High School graduate will gladly settle for steady progress as he performs daily cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“That's everybody's dream, of course I would hope that, but it's almost like hitting the lottery,” Cieply said of the odds he could single-handedly eradicate the disease. “I'm just trying to perform research that could add valuable knowledge to what we already know.”

Cieply received his doctorate in cancer cell biology from West Virginia University School of Medicine in November and is now performing post-doctorate work at the Ivy League institution. He compared his time to a residency for medical doctors.

“It's a period where you're transitioning into a faculty position,” he said. “We do basic biology working on different levels of genetics and gene expression relevant to cancer and its development.”

Cieply grew up in a small hilltop neighborhood off Tyrol Boulevard in Rostraver Township and graduated from Belle Vernon Area in 1999. He played sports and was a “decent” student, ranking 23rd in his class, but always excelled in science courses.

“I was always into biology and chemistry, even before that, science was always my favorite subject by far,” he said. “I really didn't like anything else.”

Cieply is now married to the former Shawna McElvenny (BVA Class of 2000) and the two went to the 1999 prom together. The couple currently resides in Horsham, a northern suburb of Philadelphia. Both have families still residing in the Mid-Mon Valley, including Cieply's parents, Walter and Beverly.

“I enjoy where I am now, but I'm always looking forward to come home,” he said. “The neighborhood we live in is pretty comparable to Rostraver. I go downtown every day and it's not much different than Pittsburgh. I have to say the public transportation is pretty nice out here.”

After graduating from Geneva College in 2003, Cieply worked several years at Pitt as a research lab technician. But he decided that wasn't enough and enrolled at WVU for his doctorate.

“Certainly as a technician you can do great research, so I wouldn't ever knock them, but without a Ph.D., your career advancement is very limited,” Cieply explained. “You'd always be depending on the professors. … I'm pretty free to do what I want now, but I'm still a ‘post-doc' in a professor's lab, so I still have to answer to him.”

For the next three years or so, Cieply plans to research, study, publish his findings and eventually seek a faculty position of his own.

“You want to get your research published in a reputable journal - that's the main thing - so I'm not ready yet,” he said. “Once you do get your name out there and make contacts, that's when things start to happen.”

For now, Cieply is focused on studying Epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT), a process by which cells lose their adhesion, migrate and eventually initiate cancer progression. His work often includes lab-grown cell cultures as well as genetically-engineered mice.

“It's a kind of cellular transition relevant to cancer in general, not a specific type,” he said. “Cancer cells escape the primary tumor and spread to the body and form a metastasis. ... So, EMT has the potential to broadly impact cancer.”

Cieply is also working under a newer scientific notion that treats multiple proteins found in our genes. This could also enhance the way cancer is targeted.

“There are examples that already show the same gene can make two different proteins,” he explained. “In cancer therapy, you have drugs that target specific proteins, inhibit it and shut off the protein to kill the cancer cell.

But if a cell is making two proteins, the drug would only treat one of those.”

Cieply said he works long hours in the lab, usually 12 per day, but the hours are early enough that he still finds quality time.

“I get to hang out with my wife and dog and eat dinner and you get your weekends off, so it's really not that bad,” Cieply said. “I've found good fishing spots out here too.”

As for curing cancer, Cieply said he'll stick to the slow and steady approach.

“The most effective drugs now were discovered based on the work of hundreds of thousands of different people making significant discoveries and publishing them,” he said. “Your real goal is to make significant contributions to that literature.”

Rick Bruni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2635 or

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