Women's Research Day 2: Teamwork Highlighted
Shelly Lu, MD, director of the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases in the Department of Medicine, said Cedars-Sinai is especially conducive to collaboration. "In five years, I have formed more collaborations at Cedars-Sinai than I ever did at University of Southern California in 25," said Lu, who presented her research on liver diseases.
Jane Figueiredo, PhD, director of Community and Population Health Research at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, urged female scientists to mentor other women. "It's important that we remember not only to be great leaders but also that we need to be supportive of other women's careers," she said, noting that she "stepped aside" on one grant so that one of her former postdoctoral scientists could develop and lead her own research.
Both Figueiredo and Lu described notable discoveries they have made over their careers, along with their current work, much of it supported by federal grants.
Figueiredo, associate professor of Medicine, discussed her discoveries in the epidemiology of colorectal cancer, the second most common type of cancer. With the help of a National Cancer Institute grant, she has led a large population-based study of this type of cancer among Hispanics in California. She found that while this population has a lower overall incidence of colorectal cancer than average, the cancer tends to be diagnosed at a younger age and consequently be a more advanced disease. In a new multi-institutional study, she and her collaborators are expanding the sample to learn more.
In past research, Figueiredo and colleagues have identified genetic variations associated with colorectal cancer specific to Hispanics, and she is now investigating differences in tumor biology in this population. Her current work on the ColoCare Study, a multicentered study of diverse populations, aims to discover new biomarkers that may influence cancer prognosis. In other work, she has shown the relationship between a specific genetic variation and processed meats in the risk for colorectal cancer.
The variety of populations in Los Angeles has been a major benefit of doing research here, Figueiredo said. "Los Angeles is a great place to study diversity," she explained, noting that nearly 50% of the population is Latino.
Lu, professor of Medicine, is an expert on the molecular underpinnings of liver health and disease. A major focus for her work is S-adenosylmethionine, or SAMe, a natural compound in the body that plays a critical role in liver function and injury. An enzyme known as methionine adenosyltransferase, or MAT, activates the process that produces SAMe in the liver. Most patients with chronic liver disease have lower MAT activity and SAMe level.
In her research, Lu found that when a gene that helps create MAT was blocked, laboratory animals developed liver abnormalities, including cancer, and showed deficient levels of SAMe in the liver. When SAMe was administered to the animals, it prevented the most common type of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, from developing and also inhibited establishment of tumors after they began to form, Lu said. But it did not inhibit established tumors, possibly because the body compensated for long-term administration of SAMe by removing it.
The latter finding was dismaying because "the treatments for hepatocellular carcinoma are terrible," Lu said. "They barely prolong life for a few months." As an alternative to administering SAMe, she has induced a MAT gene in laboratory animals, with some promising results in modulating cancer formation.