Duygu Ozmadenci, PhD, grew up in a small town on the Black Sea region of Turkey, across the waters from Chernobyl. As a teenager, she read a book that told stories of generations of people living in Anatolia and the land that eventually became Turkey. The depictions of the geography and flora, the description of the soil becoming barren, all of this left an impression on Duygu.
“I remember falling in love with botany first,” Duygu said, “thanks to this book.”
So she decided to study biology at Istanbul University in Turkey, where she then grew attracted to cellular and molecular biology. She was fascinated by the ways in which cells communicated with each other and orchestrated their growth. And this led to an interest in cancer.
She wanted to pursue a masters and PhD in her own country, but the only opportunity afforded to her was to work for a director who hadn’t published anything. “They wanted free labor with no possibility of significant research,” Duygu said.
“It almost broke me, and I decided that I couldn’t let politics kill my childhood dream.”
Duygu had studied French in high school and pursued her graduate studies in France, which gave her opportunities her own country couldn’t. The year was 2012, the same year that Shinya Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of cellular reprogramming.
“He completely changed our understanding of development,” said Duygu, describing how he took a differentiated cell and formatted it into a stem cell. Working in a lab in Lyon, France, Duygu continued in this line of research.
Eventually, Duygu moved to California where she is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego Moores Cancer Center, studying FAK signaling.
FAK (focal adhesion kinase) is a protein that promotes tumor growth, and at the same time, makes tumors resistant to attacks from the body’s immune system. Duygu and her team have learned that this FAK protein is elevated in about 70% of ovarian cancer patients, and is one reason why this disease has been traditionally unresponsive to immunotherapy.
Duygu’s work involves evaluating a drug that targets this FAK protein, which is working against the body in two ways.
“Our hope is that we finish our findings and publish this paper,” Duygu said, “and as soon as this is done, we can start clinical trials and reaching patients.”
Duygu loves traveling and discovering new places, learning new cultures, taking in the arts, and especially, talking to the people who live there. And every day that she sees patients and talks to them, her motivation increases.
“You see how current chemotherapy damages them and I want this to change.”
Duygu acknowledges that ovarian cancer is complicated – “tricky,” as she says. But she sees a future with more and more survivors. And so even when she fails, she keeps going. Because she loves what she does, she believes in her work, and she knows that obstacles are there to be overcome.
Dr. Ozmadenci’s grant was made possible in part by a generous donation from Gary Ockey in memory of Ann Virginia Zeidman, and by Ovarian Cycle Tampa.