Rita A. Avelar, PhD Receives Women in Cancer Research Scholar Award

By Lynn McCain | April 9

Rita Avelar sq 500.jpgThe American Association for Cancer Research recently released their 2024 Women in Cancer Research Scholar Awards and Rita A. Avelar, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in the DiFeo Laboratory, was one of just twelve women scholars awarded. This award is presented to early-career, meritorious female scientists at the AACR Annual Meeting, which will be held April 5-10, 2024, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.

Avelar is honored to be recognized for her research and is looking forward to growth opportunities this award will afford her. “The Awardees have an opportunity to meet with a panel of speakers and research professionals with various backgrounds and experience in both academia and industry, to provide guidance as to the skill sets that are important for us to develop in order to pursue a successful career in cancer research. I’m extremely excited about this!”

The project for which Avelar was recognized is a continuation of her PhD research, elucidating the molecular mechanisms for a drug that is known to modulate the activity of a protein phosphatase tumor suppressor, PP2A. However, prior to Avelar’s research, the molecular mechanism for how this anticancer drug worked was unclear. “This small molecule is able to selectively target cancer cells for death while allowing normal cells to survive, thus minimizing toxicity in normal tissues. This drug’s cytotoxic effects were shown to be uniquely specific towards the oncogenic counterparts, but we hadn’t fully understood how and why,” Avelar explained. She was able to identify that the PP2A chemical modulator induces the cellular stress response pathway to activate a master regulator of cell fate called ATF4. “ATF4 is able to, depending on the cellular context, determine whether the cell should die or live. The drug efficiently targets cancer cells for death whereas non-malignant cells are able to initiate adaptation processes, selectively activating homeostatic recovery mechanisms that allow normal cells to survive.”

An amazing finding is that in vitro testing has demonstrated that this drug is able to kill cancer cells of multiple histological contexts and subtypes while leaving normal cells unharmed. “While in vivo testing showed we reach tumor growth stasis when using this drug as a single agent, we are able to achieve regression in multiple human cancer models when combined with other FDA approved drugs, including targeted and chemotherapies.” Avelar continued, “This is the case for cancers such as breast, lung, colorectal, and with our group’s recently published research, ovarian cancer.”

The drug Avelar used in her research is considered a pre-clinical drug. Since beginning her research, optimized versions of this drug have been developed and are soon hoped to enter human clinical trials. “This has been exciting research that I have been fortunate to be involved with during graduate school. We may be able to bring, for the first time in many years, a targeted therapy that can significantly impact human’s lives, providing novel therapeutic options to improve ovarian cancer patients’ prognosis and overall survival upon being diagnosed with metastatic disease. This is really exciting and I cannot wait to present my work at AACR!,” she concluded.

Please join us in congratulating Rita A. Avelar on this well-deserved award.