Pancreatic cancer is among the most lethal of all cancers, but recent research by a team of scientists that includes a 2007 College of Wooster graduate may soon threaten the disease’s reign of terror.
Ana Clara Azevedo is now in her fourth year of a Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy. She has been studying microRNAs, which she describes as “a relatively new class of gene regulators that have been shown to be involved in cancer progression and metastasis.” The research group with which she is associated is attempting to determine the role of an important oncogenic microRNA (miR-21) in pancreatic cancer.
“Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is almost 99 percent fatal,” says Azevedo. “The reasons for this high death rate include limited detection strategies, poor treatment options, and the fact that the cancer has often metastasized by the time of diagnosis. The better we understand the mechanism(s) responsible for pancreatic cancer metastasis, the better our chances for developing improved treatment options.”
Azevedo and her colleagues are looking at the effects of modulating miR-21 expression in pancreatic cancer cells on invasion and metastasis phenotypes. Successful completion of this study will provide new information about microRNA’s role in cell invasion/metastasis.
“By targeting this regulatory microRNA, we’re trying to make the cancer phenotype less aggressive, to change how invasive it is,” says Azevedo, who recently received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Cancer Institute (a division of the National Institutes of Health) to cover the cost of tuition and provide a salary for her continued research. “It’s a slow and gradual process. Very little is known, and much is yet to be done.”
Azevedo, who moved from Goiâna, Brazil, to Wooster in 1999 when her mother accepted a position at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has always been strong in the sciences. “I was exposed to the lab when I was very young,” she says. “I spent a lot of time there, and was highly influenced by my mother’s work.”
In searching for a college, Azevedo was pleased to learn just how strong Wooster was in the sciences. “For a small school, the number of research opportunities for undergraduates is incredible,” she says. “I was better prepared [for graduate school] than most of the students I entered with at Ohio State, especially in the area of writing.”
A double major in biochemistry/molecular biology and philosophy at Wooster, Azevedo credits professors Paul Edmiston (chemistry), Dean Fraga (biology, biochemistry and molecular biology), and Elizabeth Schiltz (philosophy), among others, for enriching her research experiences at Wooster. Edmiston and Schiltz oversaw her senior Independent Study (I.S.) project. Fraga advised her summer research project one year.
“I.S. was great,” says Azevedo, who looked at the evolution of proteins and tied her study into the philosophy of science. “I was able to propose my own topic and work closely with faculty advisors. It’s what grad school is all about.”
Azevedo became interested in attending graduate school at Ohio State after sitting in on a presentation during a weekly departmental seminar in which an OSU professor spoke. Of course it didn’t hurt that her mother had attended Ohio State, and that her husband, Severin Pouly, had recently been accepted to medical school there. “That made the decision easier,” says Azevedo, a 2003 Wooster High School graduate who met Pouly, a 2003 Orrville High School graduate and a 2007 College of Wooster graduate, at the Wooster-Orrville football game in 2001. Despite the fierce rivalry between the two schools, the two began dating and were married as sophomores at the college in 2004.
After completing her Ph.D. in 2012, Azevedo may pursue a fellowship with the Food and Drug Administration because of her interest in regulatory policy, but she is likely to stay involved in research as well. After all, she and her colleagues have pancreatic cancer in the cross hairs, and they are getting closer to pulling the trigger.
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