Rohit Bhargava, CCIL Director, and Georgina Cheng, gynecologic oncologist.

Urbana, Ill. Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) scientists conduct basic research, collaborating with physicians at partnered clinics and hospitals to bring their studies from bench to bedside. Georgina Cheng and Anna Higham, Carle Foundation Hospital surgeons, are working with these scientists to address a number of cancers that predominantly impact women. 

Georgina Cheng (MD, PhD), gynecologic oncologist and surgeon, specializes in women’s reproductive cancers, including endometrial, ovarian, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancer. As a physician who is trained to perform surgery, provide chemotherapy, and offer post-surgical surveillance, Cheng is unique in her ability to follow a patient from diagnosis to survivorship.


“The cancer side of it spoke to me. As a resident, I was happiest on my gynecologic cancer rotation because I could follow through with the patients’ experience and see them through their life. I appreciate the continuity, and the surgery for my procedural side,” Cheng said.

Cheng is currently collaborating with CCIL scientists David Shapiro and Erik Nelson on a CCIL seed grant-funded project looking to treat ovarian cancer with ERSO, a novel breast cancer therapeutic developed by Shapiro and CCIL Deputy Director Paul Hergenrother in 2020.

Cheng also encouraged CCIL Director Rohit Bhargava to expand his research in colon cancer to women’s health.

Image of Georgina Cheng

Georgina Cheng, MD, PhD.

“We can take that research further and bring it to endometrial cancer, where it can have a huge impact,” Cheng said. “The CCIL provides such great opportunities, giving us a great vector to come together and translate basic science to the clinic.”

Anna Higham (MD), a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer, is also translating Bhargava’s research to Carle patients by assisting the development of his infrared spectroscopy imaging tool for use in the operating room.

This imaging system will provide real-time intraoperative assessment of breast cancer margins, allowing surgeons to ensure all malignant tissue has been removed and help prevent recurrence.

“Positive margins, or not getting all of the breast cancer, can plague even the best of surgeons today,” Higham said. “Partnering with the bioengineering experience in Dr. Bhargava’s lab will provide a solution to this clinical problem… and the work we are doing will benefit the patients and the healthcare system so much.”

Higham and Bhargava’s research is facilitated through Anirudh Mittal, a student in the C★STAR program, which connects Illinois graduate students in CCIL labs with Carle physician-scientists to foster translational research.

Image of Anna Higham

Anna Higham, MD.

Another collaborative project between Higham and CCIL program leader, Stephen Boppart, is examining the breast tumor environment. The physician and scientist are currently focusing on extracellular vesicles, which exist in greater volumes in tumors and has the potential to be used as a breast cancer screening tool.

Higham’s goal is to provide her patients with hope and optimism, backed by the scientific evidence and innovations from these research collaborations.

“Women really are remarkable… there is very much a sense of needing to benefit the next generation. I tell patients now that we stand on the shoulders of thousands of women who came before them, who participated in research to allow the treatment options we have today,” Higham said.

– Written by the CCIL Communications Team.

Georgina Cheng, MD, PhD, is a gynecologic oncologist at the Carle Cancer Institutes of Urbana and Normal, and a clinical research assistant professor at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Anna Higham, MD, is a surgical oncologist at the Carle Cancer Institute.