Upstate MD/PhD student Rebecca Sager has received a 2015 Joy Cappel Young Investigator Award from Rockland Inc., a Pennsylvania biotechnology company.
Rebecca will use the $4,000 award to further her research into molecular changes associated with prostate cancer. She is a fourth-year student in the lab of Leszek Kotula, MD, PhD, associate professor of Urology and Biochemistry & Microbiology.
“Once prostate cancer has metastasized, the usual treatment is androgen deprivation therapy,” Rebecca said. “This shuts down testosterone production, which is effective for a while but associated with big quality of life costs. Resistance to therapy ultimately develops in aggressive disease.”
Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, with one in seven men likely to be diagnosed in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s the second leading cancer cause of death in men, behind only lung cancer.
Rockland Inc. will grant 25 of the $4,000 Young Investigator awards this cycle. Dr. Kotula learned of the awards and encouraged Rebecca to apply for one.
In the Kotula lab, Rebecca examines the role of genetic alterations in the WAVE protein complex in castration-resistant prostate cancer. The WAVE complex, which includes tumor suppressor gene Abi1, is important for cell adhesion, shape and migration.
Rebecca’s goal with this award is to help design and purify an antibody against Abi1 that works better than others that are already available. This will be an essential tool to the success of her project examining Abi1’s role in castration resistance.
Ultimately, advances in labs such as Kotula’s may translate to new therapies that extend survival in men with castration-resistant prostate cancer.
Rebecca graduated from Hofstra University in 2011, where she majored in biochemistry and minored in music – two fields that complement each other more than might be expected.
“There’s a lot of creativity needed in science and research, and that’s not always appreciated,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are very involved in music, a lot of scientists. Music has rhythm and tempo. It’s very mathematical.”
Rebecca has played bass clarinet, clarinet and other woodwinds for years, and is teaching herself piano. In the lab, she sometimes listens to music and admits to a current obsession with the musical, “Hamilton,” which she has seen twice in New York City.
“In college I was torn between applying to medical school and graduate school,” Rebecca said. “After a summer of EGFR inhibitor (cancer-fighting drugs) research in a glioblastoma model at Upstate as a SURF student before my senior year of college I decided to marry the two interests and pursue the MD/PhD route.”
Rebecca passed her qualifying exams last spring and is in her second year in the Kotula lab. She’s on track to defend her PhD dissertation in 2018 and earn her MD in 2020.
When she’s not in the lab, Rebecca can often be found with her 2 ½-year-old Havanese, Winston, whose name came from a book of puppy names. “He wasn’t a Charlie,” Rebecca said.