2012 Mentored Investigator Grant Recipient — Ngai Na Co, PhD
Ovarian cancer most frequently metastasizes to the omentum, a major site of intra-abdominal fat in post-menopausal women. This proposal seeks to characterize how the omental adipocytes (fat cells) and fibroblasts (support cells) recruit ovarian tumor cells to the omentum and facilitate the spread of this deadly disease. Our preliminary data suggest that specific, two-way communication occurs between ovarian cancer cells and omental fat and fibroblast cells that not only promotes tumor growth and metastasis in the omentum, but also confers chemoresistance to the tumor cells. We have identified a regulatory molecule, miR-21, that is transferred specifically from omental to ovarian tumor cells. We speculate miR-21 plays an important role in promoting the aggressive behavior of metastatic ovarian cancer, and will characterize its effects on the ability of ovarian cancer cells to invade other tissues and resist the effects of chemotherapy.
The identification of direct mechanisms of communication between omental cells and tumor cells, which promote aggressive tumor behavior, suggests that the development of drugs that interrupt this intracellular communication may prove clinically useful as a strategy to prevent ovarian tumor progression and improve outcomes for obese cancer patients.
Dr. Co is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She obtained her Ph.D. degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2009 during which she investigated the function of a novel oncogene AF1q in human cancer cells. Her research interests include understanding the molecular mechanism underlying obesity on gynecologic tumor risk, the communication between ovarian cancer cells and their microenvironment through microvesicle exchange, and the functional roles of stromal cells on modulating ovarian tumor progression. She is the recipient of the Scholar-in-Training Award from the American Association of Cancer Research in 2011 and 2012.