Our “Meet the Researcher” series on The LLS Blog shares what our outstanding LLS-funded researchers are working on, the incredible impact they’re making in the fight against blood cancer, and what inspires their efforts to find better treatments and cures. Dr. Maria “Ken” Figueroa, Associate Professor and Co-Leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Research Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Health System, is focused on an exciting area of research called epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to chemical modifications that regulate (switch on and off) gene activity. With support from LLS, Dr. Figueroa is studying how the epigenetic changes that occur as people age may contribute to acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and other blood cancers. Advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer overall, according to the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Figueroa’s cutting-edge work offers new clues toward understanding the factors associated with cellular aging and cancer risk.
Why were you drawn to blood cancer research?
As an attending hematologist back in Argentina, it quickly became apparent that continuing to treat patients with broad chemotherapies that were highly toxic and resulted in frequent relapse was ineffective and unsustainable beyond a first relapse. The initial discoveries by Dr. Brian Druker on the efficacy of targeted therapies in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) in the early 2000s led me to believe that similar approaches could be implemented for other blood cancers. It was clear that a better understanding of the mechanisms driving the origin of cancers would be required to improve treatment.
What is the focus of your research?
My team is studying how blood forms in the bone marrow and how the normal instructions that govern this process become corrupted – either during normal aging or during malignant transformation. Our hope is that by understanding the underlying changes associated with abnormal blood production, we will be able to identify ways to prevent or treat AML and other blood cancers.
How can studying the epigenetic changes that occur as we age help inform our understanding of blood cancer risk and how to treat these diseases?
Our studies into the epigenetic changes of aging hematopoietic (blood-forming) cells have helped identify many cancer-predisposing changes that occur with normal aging. These changes don't result in cancer per se but can put us in a more susceptible state, in which any additional insult may push the cells in the wrong direction. As we learn more about these changes, we will be better positioned to identify effective preventive interventions or diagnostic strategies that would allow for early therapies to be given. Finally, these unique contributing mechanisms could be harnessed themselves for the development of novel treatments. All of these approaches are currently being explored in my lab.
How will blood cancer patients benefit from your work?
Our primary focus is to identify ways to improve the diagnosis and treatment of blood cancers. We seek to identify laboratory markers that can be used both for early diagnosis and prognostication of disease. This way, we will be able to better classify patients based on their risk of rapid disease progression and their likelihood to respond to therapies. In addition, by better understanding the mechanisms that drive malignant transformation, we aim to identify how we can precisely target the malignant cells with novel therapies, while at the same time preserving normal cells. This type of highly selective therapy is predicted to be more effective and better tolerated than currently available chemotherapies.
How has LLS helped advance your research career?
LLS has been instrumental in supporting my career. From an early Special Fellow Award that was the first grant to support my transition to an independent research position to continued support for several of my projects, funding from LLS has been essential in my ability to pursue original research, especially in areas that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would not support.
What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?
I live in a state of constant excitement about the next discovery. I am fortunate to have recruited an incredibly talented group of investigators to my lab, and I deeply enjoy my discussions with them. Every day, they surprise me with new and exciting findings that bring us closer to our goals. As a mentor of basic scientists, I always try to have my trainees spend some time in the clinic with our physicians. This gives my trainees the opportunity to appreciate the experience of blood cancer patients and how our research is working toward improving that experience. I feel that it is important for them to also feel this sense of excitement for new discoveries.
 LLS has provided more than $27.4 million in funding since the 1990s to bolster the visionary research of Brian Druker, MD, Director of The Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University. With LLS support, Dr. Druker pioneered targeted therapy, a cornerstone of precision medicine. His work led to the development of imatinib, a breakthrough in CML treatment that was first approved in 2001 and has significantly improved outcomes for patients across the globe. Today, Dr. Druker is driving innovation in precision medicine through our Beat AML Master Clinical Trial.
Learn more about Dr. Figueroa and some of her recent breakthrough work by reading our Research Spotlight story here or following her on Twitter @KenFigueroaLab.