2017 GRANTEE: Luisa Escobar-Hoyos, PhD
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Research Project: mRNA Splicing in Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma
Award: 2017 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – AACR Pathway to Leadership Grant
Award Period: July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2022
Dr. Escobar-Hoyos came to the United States after receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct PhD studies at Stony Brook University in the laboratory of Dr. Kenneth Shroyer. Before her PhD studies, Dr. Escobar-Hoyos majored in biology and graduated with a master’s degree in biomedical sciences in Colombia, South America. After graduating from Stony Brook University with the President’s Award to Distinguished Doctoral Student, Dr. Escobar-Hoyos started as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Steven Leach. Dr. Leach is the principal investigator of a 2015 Research Acceleration Network Grant from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, generously funded by Celgene Corporation, and he is the current chair of our Scientific & Medical Advisory Board.
Researchers have begun to categorize pancreatic cancer cases into distinct molecular subtypes based on gene expression and patient outcome. Now, it’s important to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms that control gene expression and to determine whether these activities could be therapeutically targetable.
Gene expression represents the steps involved to translate complex DNA code into proteins that regulate cellular function and behavior – and proteins with abnormal expression or activity can contribute to the transformation of healthy cells into cancer. One of the regulators of gene expression that most interests Dr. Escobar-Hoyos is a process called alternative splicing. Splicing is a process by which pieces of mRNA, an intermediate molecule between DNA and proteins, are precisely cut and pieced back together to complete the code necessary to translate mRNA into protein.
Whereas most genes have predetermined splice sites, or locations within the mRNA that the splicing event should happen, alternative splicing allows genes to be cut up at multiple sites. This can result in proteins with slightly or dramatically different functions, and these alternatively spliced proteins can induce cells to become cancerous.
Within Dr. Leach’s laboratory, Dr. Escobar-Hoyos has observed that patients whose pancreatic tumors have high levels of alternative splicing events have a poorer outcome and are less responsive to therapies. Therefore, the goals of Dr. Escobar-Hoyos’s project are to enhance our understanding of the cellular machinery that contributes to alternative splicing in pancreatic cancer cells and to determine whether aspects of this process can be blocked to slow or stop the progression of the disease.
Over the course of the funded period, Dr. Escobar-Hoyos will transition from her postdoctoral role to an independent position running her own lab. She feels that this award will be instrumental in the development of her research and for her career as a scientist committed to pancreatic cancer research.