November 23, 2020

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Professor of the Mayagüez Campus of the UPR receives millionaire NIH grant

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MAYAGÜEZ – Dr. Maribella Domenech García, professor of the Department of Chemical Engineering (INQU) of the Mayagüez Campus (RUM) of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), received a grant of $ 1,398,145 from the National Institute of Health (NIH), to develop Predictive cellular models of response to therapy for breast cancer.

“I am honored that these funds have been awarded to me, it has already been a very competitive process. This proposal was developed around a year and a half ago and entailed a titanic effort, since it not only includes studies at the basic level, but also includes the preclinical component, with a view to studies that are predictive of response to clinical therapies, eventually, and that may impact the quality of life of patients. So this is a very important achievement, “said the researcher.

Precisely, for the preclinical component and the tests of animal models, he collaborates with Dr. Michelle Martínez Montemayor, specialist in breast cancer and associate professor at the School of Medicine of the Central University of the Caribbean, in Bayamón.

“The proposal seeks to develop cell models of triple negative subtype breast cancer, integrating various types of cells that make up the environment of the mammary gland tissue, including cells of the immune system and mesenchymal type, to identify their role in resistance to the pharmacological therapy that is observed in many of these patients ”, he explained.

In fact, the research also evaluates how these cells respond to different drug therapies.

“In these types of models, we evaluate therapies that are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but that are not necessarily used to treat this subtype of cancer, but they are used in other types of cancer. We focus on therapies that inhibit the Hedgehog signaling cascade, as it is prevalent in triple negative breast cancer patients and there are several FDA-approved therapies used to inhibit that molecular activity. For example, treatments for head and neck cancer. So we are looking to show if this type of drug has an advantage in treating breast cancer, versus triple negative type and if there are markers at the cellular level that correlate with the response to therapy ”, he stated.

The grant that the NIH granted to this proposal, and which extends over a period of four years, provides continuity to a previous project that that same agency had approved in 2014 with an allocation of $ 531,848, for five years.

“At this time, we are in the process of validating the cell culture model with mouse models and molecular markers reported in patients. We hope to begin this type of testing now between November and December with the animal models and continue with a second study in mid-March. So the idea of ​​this is that we can test drugs that have already been approved or are in clinical trials to treat the Hedgehog signaling cascade with the platforms that are developed in the laboratory and that these platforms can predict the responses that they are seen in mice, in such a way that we can validate the platform for future personalized medicine studies, but also at the cellular level ”, he said.

The proposal also provides the opportunity for students, both undergraduates and graduates, to be involved in research directly related to the search for cancer treatments.

“This project is very important because one of the goals that I aspire, as a researcher in the Engineering area, is to establish a niche that allows the development of technologies for the study and diagnosis of cancer, not only breast, but also other subtypes. For now, the number of research and studies in that area is somewhat limited. So with this type of project, I seek to establish that niche where students who are interested in studying cancer, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, can participate in this type of research. Currently, this project supports a research assistant, which is Dr. Ana M. Reyes, who recently received her doctorate at INQU, under my direction. It also supports a graduate student, Heizel M Rosado, who is in the Bioengineering Program at the doctoral level and is also providing research opportunities to undergraduate students Jan P. Ríos and Alexxa C. Cruz. It is a unique opportunity in which students are trained, not only in the part of making culture models with human cells, but also in seeing and participating in the research that is done in animal models at the preclinical level ”, he pointed out.

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