Five questions with exercise physiology researcher Kathleen Sturgeon

January 18, 2021

Just as different doses of drugs have variable effects on people, so too does exercise. Kathleen Sturgeon, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, is researching to see what amounts of exercise can increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and is trying to understand how exercise alters the immune system.

Sturgeon is completing her involvement in Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute's Early-Stage Investigator Training Program. The program, also known as KL2, invests in researchers who are early in their careers and building their research programs. The program protects the researcher’s time to work on a specific project. Sturgeon's project involves the use of exercise in breast cancer treatment.

A full interview with Sturgeon about her research is available in episode 6 of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Engage podcast. Each episode aims to help listeners learn about the research process and how Penn State helps improve our neighbors' and communities' health.

How do you describe your research lab?

Sturgeon: In general, my lab is both transdisciplinary and translational. That means that we look at a question that may span different fields — a lot of discipline — so it's transdisciplinary. And then we also approach it in a way that's translational. We move from animal models up into clinical trials and to the community. So, we go horizontally between disciplines and then up and down through different models, whether it's bench-to-bedside or reaching out to the community.

What is your research focus?

Sturgeon: I really plant my flag in exercise physiology because there are so many different disciplines that exercise touches as it's a behavior, but it's also something your body does, so there's a physiology aspect to it. It's also related to healthcare in that it's about prevention. We are looking at how we can use exercise almost like a drug for individuals who may be in a chronic disease. How can we look at how exercise biologically normally functions and then bring people from non-normal back to normal using exercise?

Right now, we're really focusing on exercise oncology. With oncology, you have a whole spectrum. You go from prevention through during-treatment and into survivorship. There's a whole continuum to it. We focus on the whole aspect, really. We look at exercise for prevention, for decreasing the risk of cancer.

What have you found in your research in mice regarding exercise and cancer tumors?

Sturgeon: What we've found in the past is that a low-intensity level of exercise in these mice actually changed the vasculature (blood vessel structure) of the tumor so that when we were giving these animals the chemotherapy at the same time, the chemo was being delivered to more parts of the tumor. It had better vasculature, so the tumor was getting more exposure to the therapy that would kill the cells because, in a normal tumor, the vasculature is very abnormal. You might have a big vessel that comes down and just stops. It doesn't go anywhere. Or you'll have blood vessels that collapse, and they're not even open — nothing can get through them. We found that exercise at a low intensity, something very manageable, was enough to change that vasculature and allow more chemo to be delivered.

How do you want to see your research improve healthcare?

Sturgeon: If you go to your oncologist, they don't just give you a blanket prescription. They need to know some things. Well, what type of cancer is it? Where is it? How aggressive is it? What stage is it? Where else has it gone? They need to know information so they can give you the right prescription. Not only do we want to have cancer exercise specialists in the clinic to provide a prescription for exercise, but I want to give those cancer exercise specialists the tools to say what each person should be prescribed.

What kind of collaborations are you open to as a researcher?

Sturgeon: I'm looking for collaborators who can utilize exercise as a tool in the systems they already have set up. At the end of the day, we know everybody should exercise. We know exercise is good. But we don't know why. We don't really know that physiology and the biology and the molecular side and the signaling pathways that change when things are good. We know the pathophysiology. 

But we're working hard, and the National Institutes of Health has put a lot of money into some programs to look at this. That is something I think if people are looking for that next novel spin, the innovation in their grant, all these keywords if they're looking for ways to take their own research someplace new, let's talk about exercise in your established systems. Let's see if you perturbate it with exercise as a tool. You'd probably be surprised at some of your outcomes and how things change.

About Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute provides tools, services and training to make health research more efficient at Penn State. It is an advocate for translational science at the University and is a bridge between basic scientists and clinical researchers. The institute encourages collaboration to discover new treatments, medical procedures and ways to diagnose disease. Learn more at ctsi.psu.edu.

Last Updated January 18, 2021