The Mary Kay Ash FoundationSM, a decades-long leader and advocate for finding cures for cancers affecting women, and UT Southwestern Medical Center, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, in Dallas, Texas, celebrated five years of collaborative success on the International Postdoctoral Scholars in Cancer Research Fellowship program. Hosted at the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center, the fellowship is a two-year postdoctoral program sponsored by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation.
Established in 2019, the program set out to recruit exemplary international researchers in their respective fields, provide them with invaluable experience, mentorship, and a return grant to continue their pursuits in their home country – bringing their knowledge and experience gained with them.
To date, the program has successfully recruited 13 highly accomplished postdoctoral researchers from Brazil, China, Germany, Mexico, Singapore, Spain and Portugal – seven of which have successfully completed the program; six continue to actively pursue their respective research projects in Dallas; and all have made impactful contributions to notable research publications.
The Mary Kay Ash Foundation is proud to continue its long legacy of making the world a safer, healthier place for women and their families and partnering with organizations who share that vision.
(L to R) Back Row: Dongqi Xie, PhD, Principal Investigator Jerry Shay, PhD, Pedro Nogueira, PhD; Front Row: Debora Andrade Silva, PhD, Hong-Yi Liu, PhD, and Maria Del Chica Parrado, PhD
Not Pictured: Quan Wang, PhD, Rodrigo Catalan, PhD, and Malini Rethnam, PhD
(L to R) Back Row: Ana Martin Vega, PhD, Jerry Shay, PhD, Sebastian Diegeler, PhD; Front Row: Liliana Teixeira, PhD, Natalia Bernardes, PhD, Shengyan Gao, PhD
MEET THE SCHOLARS
Dr. Dongqi Xie | CHINA
Dr. Xie received his doctorate from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China in 2021 and joined the lab of Beatriz Fontoura, Ph.D., Professor of Cell Biology, in 2022. Dr. Xie’s research project aims to reveal the architecture of nuclear speckles and their functions in pre-mRNA splicing and mRNA nuclear export. Revealing the molecular mechanism of how hnRNPH proteins regulate RNA splicing and nuclear export may provide insights into potential new therapeutic targets. In addition to his research, Dr. Xie has participated in multiple professional development workshops.
Dr. Pedro Nogueira | BRAZIL
Dr. Nogueira received his doctorate at State University of Campinas-UNICAMP in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2022 and joined the lab of Maralice Conacci-Sorrell, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Cell Biology. Throughout his undergraduate and master’s studies, he directed his scientific efforts to the cellular and molecular mechanisms of neurobiology in obesity, aiming at improving patient treatment. His long-term goal is to characterize the systemic effects of cancer in nutrient metabolism in different tissues, with the goal of developing new strategies to improve the quality of life of patients living with liver cancer. He is also collaborating with another lab at UT Southwestern with the goal of gaining better understanding of colocalization with structural proteins and cell types.
Dr. Debora Andrade Silva | BRAZIL
Dr. Silva received her doctorate from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2021 and joined the lab of Jennifer Kohler, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry in 2023. Dr. Silva’s project involves the role of hyposialyation in malignancies associated with RUNX1 expression. Hypersialyation occurs commonly in cancer and knowledge about the mechanisms of the changes in sialyation (the addition of sialic acid residues to glycoconjugates) and how to restore normal levels could be potential cancer therapeutic approaches.
Dr. Hong-Yi Liu | CHINA
Dr. Liu’s research focuses on a novel class of small proteins called micropeptides in relation to Triple Negative Breast Cancer. She believes that incorrectly made micropeptides contribute to treatment resistance in some TNBCs. By comparing all of the micropeptides being made in treatment-resistant versus treatment-responding TNBC cells, Dr. Liu has identified several micropeptide candidates that may contribute to treatment resistance. When she interfered with one of those micropeptides, the treatment-resistant cancer cells were once again able to respond to a traditional chemotherapy drug used in TNBC. She is currently doing further experiments to validate these exciting findings.
Dr. Maria Del Rosario Chica Parrado | SPAIN
Dr. Chica Parrado’s research focuses on understanding how changes to a cellular signaling pathway contribute to resistance to standard therapies in ER+ metastatic breast cancer. This pathway seems to be overactive in treatment-resistant ER+ breast cancers. She is using tumor samples from patients with treatment-resistant ER+ breast cancer to create miniature 3D tumors in the lab, called organoids. These tumor organoids can be used to study the exact changes and mechanisms that led to drug resistance, as well as to identify therapeutic strategies to overcome resistance.
Dr. Quan Wang | CHINA
Dr. Wang received his doctorate from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China in 2023 and joined the lab of Jinming Gao, Ph.D., Professor of Cell Biology in 2023. He is interested in applying polymer science and bioengineering skills in tumor immunology for cancer immunotherapy. To date, he has published 13 papers in the Science Citation Index, including Biomaterials, Journal of Controlled Release, Advanced Healthcare Materials, and ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering as the first author. He hopes to make outstanding contributions in developing new technologies against many types of cancer (e.g., lung cancer and breast cancer) with his polymer therapeutics background under Dr. Gao’s supervision.
Dr. Ana Martin Vega | SPAIN
Dr. Martin Vega earned a doctorate from the Instituto de Biomedicina y Biotechologia de Cantabria in Santander, Spain. Her mentor is Melanie Cobb, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology, and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Vega studied cellular pathways that lead to tumor development and treatment resistance in a particularly aggressive class of lung cancers known as neuroendocrine (NE) tumors, which includes small cell lung cancer (SCLC). In many cancers, elevated activity of a protein called ERK often enhances tumor progression. However, in SCLC, ERK activity slows tumor progression instead. Dr. Vega sought to detail molecular interactions that cause ERK to slow tumor progression. Furthermore, she investigated how these tumors fight back and develop resistance to the effects of ERK, as well as the effects of traditional chemotherapy. Dr. Vega also developed a cancer cell line that has enabled her to tease apart which specific sub-types of SCLC would respond best to potential treatments that enhance ERK activity. She uncovered how ERK joins forces with two other proteins in these cancer cells to do its job. Taken together, these findings not only reveal new potential targets for slowing or preventing tumor growth, but they also identify a potential biomarker that would help doctors understand if their patient’s tumor would respond well to the resulting treatment. Dr. Vega completed her two-year Mary Kay Ash Foundation grant in 2022 and continued her work in the Cobb lab. She recently submitted two manuscripts for publication.
Dr. Sebastian Diegeler | GERMANY
Dr. Diegeler earned a doctorate in Aerospace Medicine in Cologne at the German Aerospace Center. His mentor is Todd Aguilera, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology. Dr. Diegler’s research focuses on assessing how different treatment strategies in human cancer patients affect the tumor immune microenvironment. To compare different treatment strategies, Dr. Diegeler began obtaining tumor samples from patients who either had no treatment before surgery, or who underwent chemotherapy with or without radiation before surgery. He also optimized the detection of 34 different markers to identify a wide variety of immune, cancer, and other cells. Dr. Diegeler developed a computational image analysis method to pinpoint the location of each cell type and define distinct “neighborhoods” within the tumor. This will help create a detailed map of different tumor components and their interactions before and after different treatments. Dr. Diegeler completed his two-year Mary Kay Ash Foundation grant in 2022 and continued his work in the Aguilera lab.
Dr. Liliana Teixeira | PORTUGAL
Dr. Teixeira earned her doctorate in radiation biology and biophysics from the NOVA University Lisbon in Portugal. She joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Goldsmith, Ph.D., Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry. Dr. Teixeira’s research focused on triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) that accounts for 10% to 20% of breast cancer cases and is associated with poor prognosis. Due to the lack of therapeutics available, Dr. Teixeira identified a biomolecular target to develop more efficient treatments. The target is a protein called WNK1, and without it, breast cancer cells are less able to migrate and metastasize. Targeting WNK1 and other proteins in the same cellular pathway represents a new and promising strategy to treat breast cancer. Dr. Teixeira’s work has uncovered new insight into how WNK1 does its job in the cell. Her future experiments will identify how the different shapes WNK1 can affect its function, which will lead to more precise drug development to inhibit its function and reduce breast cancer metastasis. She completed a one-year placement and continues her work as a Biochemist Postdoctoral Scientist at iLof (Intelligent Lab of Fiber) in Porto, Portugal.
Dr. Rodrigo Catalán | MEXICO
Dr. Catalán earned his doctorate in biomedical sciences from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico and his medical degree from the Universidad La Salle, School of Medicine. He was co-mentored by Elisabeth Martinez, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pharmacology and David Gerber, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine. Dr. Catalan’s primary research project was to determine how non-small cell lung cancer develops resistance to chemotherapy by altering its epigenome. He also participated in other research protocols alongside his mentors whose research is also focused on finding ways to improve treatment strategies for patients with lung cancer. Dr. Catalan completed a one-year grant, then returned to Mexico to be a Medical Science Liaison at AstraZeneca in Mexico City.
Dr. Malini Rethnam | SINGAPORE
Dr. Rethnam completed her doctorate in 2021 at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore. She then joined the laboratory of Prasanna Alluri, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology. Dr. Rethnam studied how to prevent late recurrences in ER+ breast cancers. While immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of many cancers, ER+ breast cancers have not responded well to this class of therapies. Tumors that respond well to immunotherapy tend to have many mutations and are infiltrated by immune cells. Dr. Rethnam believes that inducing many new mutations in ER+ tumors will attract immune cells to them and thereby increase their responsiveness to immunotherapy. Her overall strategy is to take cancer cell lines with very few mutations and then increase the mutational load by removing a key gene. The availability of gene editing technologies to induce locally this same effect by direct local injection into breast tumors may enable rapid clinical application of this approach to improve outcomes in breast cancer patients. Dr. Rethnam completed a one-year placement and continued her work as a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Dr. Natália Bernardes | BRAZIL
Dr. Bernardes earned a doctorate in general and applied biology from São Paulo State University in Brazil. Her mentor was Yuh Min Chook, Professor of Pharmacology and Biophysics. Dr. Bernardes completed her two-year grant in 2021. However, she has remained in Dr. Chook’s lab to complete and publish more of her studies. Dr. Bernardes’ research focused on investigating the nucleosome, a small complex of proteins around which DNA is wrapped so that it can fit inside the cell. The findings from this work are important since modification to proteins within the nucleosome are common in cancer and understanding their atomic structure and alterations in cancer could lead to novel therapeutic approaches in the future. From the research completed while on the training grant, Dr. Bernardes was able to first author a publication on her research in the peer-reviewed journal Biochemical Society Transactions.
Dr. Shengyan Gao | CHINA
Dr. Gao earned a doctorate in microbiology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China. Her mentor is Beatriz Fontoura, Professor of Cell Biology. Dr. Gao completed her two-year placement in 2021 and remained at UT Southwestern in Dr. Fontoura’s lab to complete additional experiments. She recently published her first authored paper in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Gao’s research focused on the study of proteins that regulate an important process in the cell known as RNA splicing, in which she uncovered new functions for a protein called TAO2 kinase. Dr. Gao has continued to investigate the function of TAO2 and its chemical inhibitor in tumorigenesis and metastasis.