Postdoctoral and Clinical Fellowship Awardees

2024 Awardees

portrait of cancer researcher Metin Cetin 

Metin Cetin, Ph.D.

LOWVELO Post-doctoral Fellow

Project: Targeting Metabolic Plasticity in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Mentor: Ozgur Sahin, Ph.D.

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is the most aggressive breast cancer subtype. It accounts for ~15% of all breast cancer patients yet is responsible for 30% of breast cancer deaths. The lack of receptors for targeted therapies limits the therapeutic options to conventional chemotherapy. Furthermore, high metabolic heterogeneity/plasticity allow TNBC cells to rewire their metabolism and activate compensatory pathways to survive. Therefore, blocking metabolic plasticity in TNBC remains an unmet clinical need to be addressed. This project will focus on targeting metabolic rewiring in TNBCs and will develop effective combinatorial strategies to exploit the metabolic vulnerabilities of tumors and block the compensatory metabolic pathways, ultimately improving clinical outcome.

portrait of cancer researcher Maria Turos Cabal 

Maria Turos-Cabal, Ph.D.

LOWVELO Post-doctoral Fellow

Project: Uncovering Novel SHH Regulators for Patients with Treatment Resistant Medulloblastoma

Mentor: Jezabel Rodriguez Blanco, Ph.D.

Medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor in children, is currently classified into four major subgroups. Tumors within the Sonic Hedgehog (SHH) subgroup account for one-third of the cases and are characterized by constant activation of SHH signaling. While 75% of children with SHH medulloblastoma survive, they face the consequences of aggressive current therapies (surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy).

To mitigate treatment-associated toxicities, targeted therapies for children with medulloblastoma are being developed. These therapies aim to target specific drivers of tumor growth rather than indiscriminately targeting proliferating cells. Among these more specific therapeutics, those tailored for children with SHH medulloblastoma are the most advanced. These therapies primarily focus on targeting the key component of the SHH pathway, Smoothened (SMO). Despite promising efficacy, treatment resistance and relapse are often observed in medulloblastoma patients exposed to SMO inhibitors.

My project aims to identify compounds acting downstream of SMO, with a specific emphasis on targeting the ultimate pathway effectors—the Glioma-associated family of transcription factors GLI. Proteomic analysis in SHH medulloblastoma models has identified potential GLI regulators. I now propose to validate one of the identified candidates and assess its efficacy using ex vivo and in vivo SHH medulloblastoma models. The successful completion of this project may facilitate the translation of the validated GLI regulator for the treatment of children with SHH medulloblastoma.

2023 Awardees

image of Kinsey Pebley

Kinsey Pebley, Ph.D.

Abney Post-doctoral Fellow

Project: Video Interventions for Dependence on Smoking (VIDeOS) for Cancer Patients

Mentor: Alana Rojewski, Ph.D.

Smoking after a cancer diagnosis increases the risk of serious health consequences, such as increased likelihood of having metastatic disease at the time of diagnosis, a second primary cancer diagnosis, worsened side effects of treatment, and worsened wound healing. However, many cancer patients continue to smoke after diagnosis. While there are evidence-based smoking cessation interventions available, these treatments are not necessarily tailored to cancer patients. Further, individuals may have difficulty accessing the available cessation resources, such as those individuals from rural areas and individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, it may be important to not only adapt cessation interventions to meet the unique needs of cancer patients, but also to adapt intervention delivery modalities to extend their accessibility among diverse cancer patients.

My study aims to collect qualitative and quantitative data towards this goal. In the first phase of the study, semi-structured qualitative interviews will be conducted with cancer patients about their experiences with smoking cessation, barriers to cessation, perceptions of continued smoking after a cancer diagnosis, and reasons for quitting or not quitting. In the second phase of the study, quantitative assessments will be administered among individuals with cancer who are currently smoking and those who have quit to assess barriers to smoking cessation and differences between individuals who are currently smoking and those who based on clinically relevant variables. The third phase of the study will use the information gathered in phases I and II to adapt a tailored smoking cessation intervention employing short informational videos. A small pilot trial will be conducted to assess the feasibility and acceptability of this modality. Improving the accessibility of smoking cessation interventions may subsequently improve smoking cessation rates among cancer patients, leading to better health outcomes, quality of life, and cost effectiveness of treatment.

Giulia Ferretti headshot

Giulia Ferretti, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: p53-Mediated Tumor Suppression in Liver Cancer

Mentor: Tim Barnoud, Ph.D.

TP53 is the most frequently mutated tumor suppressor gene in human cancer. TP53 encodes a critical tumor suppressor, p53, that has many roles in protecting cells from cancer, including cell cycle arrest, senescence and apoptosis. In addition to mutations, there are naturally occurring variants in the TP53 gene known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that are associated with increased cancer risk in humans and mouse models.

One example of such a variant is the coding region polymorphism at amino acid 47 of p53 (Proline47Serine; hereafter S47). The S47 polymorphism of p53 is found in approximately 1-2% of African Americans. Studies in mice have shown that the S47 variant causes spontaneous tumors, with over 30% of these mice developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer. We hypothesize that the S47 variant of p53 may be a risk factor for liver cancer in African Americans; we will test this using cell lines and mouse models of hepatocellular carcinoma. A secondary goal is to identify novel therapeutic strategies to treat tumors that contain the S47 variant of p53, a concept known as personalized medicine.

Ashvita Garg headshot

Ashvita Garg, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: HPV-Related Cancer Prevention Practices and Health Behaviors Among Persons Living with HIV in a Southern HIV Care Clinic

Mentor: Ashish Deshmukh, Ph.D.

The high prevalence of HPV is of special concern in people living with HIV (PLWHIV), as they are at a disproportionately elevated risk of developing cancers caused by HPV. This increased susceptibility to cancers necessitates the improvement of delivery and uptake of HPV-related cancer prevention methods (HPV vaccination and screening).

Although there are existing evidence-based interventions for HPV-related cancer prevention among PLWHIV, uptake and adherence remain suboptimal. Therefore, this study will help understand factors related to the uptake and adherence of HPV-related cancer prevention methods. Additionally, this study will help gain PLWHIV patient perspectives regarding the HPV vaccine and HPV-related cancer screening, which will be crucial for designing and delivering tailored interventions to improve the uptake of evidence-based cancer prevention interventions and reduce cancer burden in this vulnerable group.

2022 Awardees

Liu Liu headshot

Liu Liu, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: The Role of PRMT2/4-Mediated Arginine Methylation in Controlling BRD4 Function in
Breast Cancer

Mentor: Wenjian Gan, Ph.D.

Epigenetic modifications including DNA methylation and histone modifications play a critical role in several biological processes including cell proliferation, apoptosis, migration and differentiation. The bromodomain and extra-terminal domain (BET) family proteins serve as the reader of acetylated lysine and are enriched in super-enhancers/promoter region. They act as scaffolds to recruit transcription-related proteins to promote transcription.

Notably, BRD4 is the most studied BET protein and is frequently amplified or overexpressed in a variety of cancers. This study will explore how PRMT2/4-mediated methylation of BRD4 promotes its binding to acetylated histone and subsequently enhances transcription and breast cancer cell proliferation. Through these studies, we will not only expand current knowledge on the upstream regulation of BRD4, but also provide a molecular basis and rationale for combinational use of BET and PRMT inhibitors.

2020 Awardees

Alessandra Metelli

Alessandra Metelli, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Targeting Sphingosine 1 Phosphate Pathway in Human Myeloid Cells to Enhance Anti-Tumor Immunity During Immunotherapy

Mentor: John Wrangle, M.D.

Macrophages are a double-edged sword in cancer therapy. On the one hand they are adaptive immune response initiators, and on the other hand they can suppress immune responses. I am interested in how the lipid immune metabolism in human macrophages can be harnessed to support anti-tumor immunity in cancer treatment. My translational project utilized human samples and single cell multi-omics approaches such as mass cytometry, RNA sequencing, and metabolism.

Vinodh Rajagopalan

Vinodh Rajagopalan, Ph.D., D.V.M.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Allosteric Inhibition of RAS Counteracts Neuroblastoma (NBL) Tumorigenesis

Mentor: John O'Bryan, Ph.D.

Neuroblastomas (NBL) are one of the most common pediatric solid tumors. The tumor-promoting oncoprotein called RAS is implicated in the progression of this tumor. Our lab has identified a novel inhibitor for this protein that counteracts its function. Using this novel inhibitor, we are addressing the question of whether inhibition of RAS is a viable strategy for treating NBL tumors. We are using a variety of biochemical, molecular, and cell biology approaches to answer this question. If our proposed studies are successful, our work may lead to new therapeutic strategies for treating this deadly pediatric cancer that is currently refractory to conventional therapies.

Shasha Yin

Shasha Yin, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Characterizing the Roles and Regulators of Protein Arginine Methyltransferase 5 (PRMT5) in Breast Cancer

Mentor: Wenjian Gan, Ph.D.

Mostly breast tumors display higher PRMT5 (a coding gene) expression, and the expression levels of PRMT5 are associated with poor prognosis and survival in triple-negative breast cancer. PRMT5 is believed to function largely as an oncogene. However, the exact mechanisms by which PRMT5 promotes breast tumorigenesis are unclear. This project will dissect the mechanisms and regulations of PRMT5 in breast cancers and expect to make some groundwork for the utility of PRMT5 inhibitor in the clinic.

2019 Awardees

Jung Hyun Cho

Jung-Hyun Cho

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: LncRNA Regulation of Glycolysis in Breast Cancer

Mentor: Je-Hyun Yoon, Ph.D.

This research investigates the therapeutic strategy for malignant breast cancer by revealing the pivotal roles of long noncoding RNA (lncRNA) NEAT1 in glucose metabolism and cancer development. Aberrant metabolic program strongly associated with breast cancer correlates with enhanced tumorigenesis, relapse, and resistance to treatment by targeting lncRNAs. This project will provide a new therapeutic approach and help overcome resistance to treatment of malignant breast cancer.

Catherine MarElia

Catherine MarElia

Project: Investigating the Role of Stromal IL-6 in the Immune Evasion and Progression of Pancreatic Cancer

Mentor: Michael Ostrowski, Ph.D.

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is one of the most lethal and recalcitrant cancer types. This is in part due to the development of a dense stroma and significant degree of immunosuppression. My research will determine how expression of the pleotropic cytokine IL-6 by fibroblasts, specifically within the stroma, contributes to the progression and immune cell population of PDAC tumors.

Bartosz Mucha

Bartosz M. Mucha, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Dissecting an Fbxo4-hnRNPK Regulatory Axis in Oral Squamous Carcinoma

Mentor: J. Alan Diehl, Ph.D.

Mucha’s research investigates hnRNP K, a multifunctional RNA binding protein that increases its response in many human cancers. Preliminary data revealed that hnRNP K is modified by Fbxo4-dependent ubiquitylation. The focus of his current research project is to reveal the nature of the polyubiquitin chains and the reaction of Fbxo4-dependent regulation of hnRNP K for normal versus tumor cell growth.

Benjamin Pryce

Benjamin R. Pryce, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: NF-kB Function in Muscle Stem Cells Regulates Macrophages to Promote Cancer Cachexia

Mentor: Denis Guttridge, Ph.D.

The goal of Pryce’s research is to explore muscle wasting in cancer, a condition called cachexia. Cachexia greatly decreases survival and quality of life in cancer patients, which is especially prominent in pancreatic cancer. His project will focus on the role of the NF-kB signaling pathway and how it contributes to cachexia in pancreatic cancer as well as other cancers.

2018 Awardees

Simon Grelet

Simon Grelet, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Transfer RNAs in Cell Plasticity and Tumor Progression: Uncharted Biology and Novel Therapeutic Avenues

Mentor: Philip Howe, Ph.D.

The aim of Dr. Grelet's project is to decipher how tRNA biology regulates cancer invasion and stemness, two traits of the tumor cells that are deemed to be essential during tumor metastasis and tumor relapse. Such molecular insights might open new therapeutic opportunities that will be evaluated within the study.

Zongyang Lyu

Zongyang Lyu, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Structural Biology of the Essential Cell Cycle Regulator Cdc34

Mentor: Shaun Olsen, Ph.D.

I study the structure and function of protein complexes in ubiquitin pathways and develop inhibitors for cancer therapeutic targets.

Yongxia Wu

Yongxia Wu, Ph.D.

HCC Abney Fellow

Project: Targeting STING in Immunotherapy for Hematologic Malignancy

Mentor: Xue-Zhong Yu, M.D.

The goal of this proposal is to define the biology of stimulator of interferon gene (STING) in immune response against leukemia after bone marrow transplantation (BMT). We will validate STING as a potential target in immunotherapy for controlling leukemia relapse and reducing the side effects associated with BMT.