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Cutting-Edge Pancreatic Cancer Research

Cathy Garcia '13 researches ways to slow progress of pancreatic cancer as grad student at Yale University

June 22, 2020

Alum Publishes Cutting-Edge Pancreatic Cancer Research

Alumna Cathy Garcia '13 is a grad student at Yale University, where she is preparing for a career in research and teaching

“Pancreatic cancer has a very high mortality rate, and there aren’t many treatment options besides chemotherapy,” says Cathy Garcia ’13, a second year PhD student at Yale. “But our research is trying to change that.” 

Cathy Garcia '13
Cathy Garcia '13

Garcia is co-author of “Endocrine-Exocrine Signaling Drives Obesity-Associated Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma,” published on April 17, 2020 in Cell, a premier science journal. The paper focuses on research Garcia and colleagues are doing in the genetics department’s Muzumdar Lab at Yale, led by principal investigator Mandar Deepak Muzumdar.

“All of my life, I’ve been drawn to translational research, which can then be used as a basis for future clinical trials,” she says. “This research could change lives.”

Muzumdar identified cholecystokinin, a hormone that is normally made in the small intestine, in the pancreas of obese mice with pancreatic cancer. Cells that should have been regulating the body’s glucose levels were making cholecystokinin instead of insulin, thereby promoting pancreatic cancer progression.

Garcia examined the cells of obese mice that had already started to develop diabetes and compared them to those in lean mice. She found that these cells began expressing cholecystokinin in obese mice that had not developed pancreatic cancer.

“Normally, one mutation alone is not enough to drive tumors into advanced stages of cancer,” says Garcia. “But one mutation plus obesity does drive the progression. The cells that normally make insulin are now causing tumors.” Scientists had already studied cholecystokinin and pancreatic cancer but had not previously identified the hormone as a driver for pancreatic cancer in obese individuals.

Garcia’s thesis work will build on her current research as she attempts to alleviate the stress that the hormone is causing on the cells enough to slow down or stop pancreatic cancer progression.

As an undergraduate, Garcia loved research and enjoyed working in biology professor Luiza Nogaj’s lab. But it was during her five years as a Mount professor that she discovered she also loved teaching.

“I fell in love with teaching, but I only had my bachelor’s,” she says. “The biology and physical science professors told me that if you really love teaching, you should apply for your PhD. They were amazing mentors!”

Ultimately, she would love to be a professor at a university where she could teach and do research, like her Mount professors. And she would prefer to work at a smaller institution. “I loved the one-on-one connection I felt with my professors and the students that I taught,” she says. “Dr. Nogaj became more than a mentor to me. She’s like family. We still keep in touch.”

Mentorship is one Mount lesson that has stuck with her. Besides being mentored by her professors while she was an undergraduate, Garcia was a peer-mentor for incoming biology students. “I was the first in my family to attend college and had to learn how to commute, deal with family and juggle 18 units a semester,” she says. “I liked being a support system for other students so they knew they weren’t alone. It’s something I’ve continued at Yale, not only for incoming students but for the community of minority students in the sciences.”

Looking back, Garcia says the Mount played a key role in her life. “I’m extremely grateful for all the professors,” she says. “They were important in getting me to where I am today.”