Science Education Leads to Success
May 10, 2014
This spring, former GCC student Pilar Ramos saw an important announcement in the renowned scientific journal, Nature Genetics. The cause of a rare type of ovarian cancer that most often strikes girls and young women had been discovered. Ramos was thrilled, though not exactly surprised. For she had been a member of the international research team – in fact, the lead author – for the study that resulted in this significant discovery.
Ramos attended GCC from 2003 to 2005. She grew up in Spain, where she spent a lot of time in the pharmacy owned by her father. Perhaps inevitably, she decided pretty early on that she wanted to become a pharmacist. However, after learning about the GCC Biotechnology department, she decided to pursue a career in molecular and cellular biology, and switched her focus to obtaining an associate degree in Biotechnology.
She earned both an A.A. and an A.A.S. at GCC, then transferred to ASU, where she graduated with a B.S. in Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology in May 2007. She returned to school in 2009, initially enrolling in ASU’s Master’s program in Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), then switching to the Ph.D. track. She is currently a fourth-year MCB Ph.D. candidate.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death among American women. The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) (LINK TO TGEN) led the international research team that focused on a particular type of cancer: small cell carcinoma of the ovary, hypercalcemic type (also known as SCCOHT). This type of cancer usually is not diagnosed until it is in its advanced stages. It does not respond to standard chemotherapy, and 65 percent of patients die within two years. It has affected girls as young as 14 months, and women as old as 58 years - with a mean age of only 24 years old. In this study, the youngest patient was nine years old. Much of the work in the TGen study was inspired by the memory of Taryn Ritchey, a 22-year-old TGen patient who in 2007 lost her battle with ovarian cancer. Taryn's mother lives in Cave Creek, Arizona.
The study included: Scottsdale Healthcare, Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center; Evergreen Hematology and Oncology, Children's Hospital of Alabama, the Autonomous University of Barcelona, British Columbia Cancer Agency, University of British Columbia, and the University Health Network-Toronto.
Efforts to study SCCOHT began in 2010, under the direction of Drs. Heather Cunliffe and Jeffrey Trent of TGen. Trent, president and research director of TGen, was the study's senior author. Ramos worked as a research associate under Dr. Cunliffe, the principal investigator leading the project. The protocol allowing TGen to collect specimens from SCCOHT patients was approved and launched toward the end of 2010. Once team members had enough samples, they were able to begin performing genomics analyses.
Ramos first began helping with just a few aspects of the project. With time, she became more and more invested, to the point that she decided to focus her Ph.D. research work on studying this disease. Ultimately, she became so involved that she became the study’s lead author. “The lead author(s) of a scientific article is usually the individual who makes the greatest contribution to the work being published,” said Ramos. “This person also works on writing the manuscript.”
Ramos was surprised at the study’s findings. “Because of the early age of onset of the disease and reports of familial cases of SCCOHT, it was clear that there was a strong underlying genetic component in the development of this disease,” she explained. “But it was surprising to find that mutations in a single gene were essentially the sole cause of SCCOHT.”
She went on to explain that most cancers display mutations in 30 to 60 genes. In contrast, the SMARCA4 gene is almost the only gene containing mutations in SCCOHT tumors. The SMARCA4 gene previously has been associated with lung, brain and pancreatic cancer. This scientific breakthrough may have broader ramifications, and paves the way for clinical trials that could provide patients with immediate benefit.
Ramos feels extremely fortunate to have been mentored by some of the best scientists in the country, having had the opportunity of contributing to such a significant study and having been part of a highly successful team. “I don’t think a Ph.D. student could ask for a better experience than what I have had,” she reflected.
But helping to find what causes SCCOHT was the greatest satisfaction of all. “There is nothing better than being able to tell SCCOHT patients and their families that we have found the cause of SCCOHT and that this is going to help us find a treatment,” she said.
Ramos is hoping to finish her Ph.D. degree by the end of this summer, and then remain at TGen so she can continue working on the SCCOHT project. “Now that we understand the cause, we can focus on identifying ways to treat this cancer type, as well as other types of cancer that have similar genetic aberrations,” she said.
Ramos hopes to continue working on cancer research and helping to identify better treatments for cancer patients. “I would love to stay here in Arizona, as there are incredible scientists here,” she said.
Ramos says laboratory and research skills she learned in the Biotechnology Program at GCC allowed her to complete all of her upper level courses at ASU with great ease. “At GCC, I gained the confidence necessary to believe I could succeed in pursuing a degree in molecular and cellular biology,” she said. “Moreover, because of all the hands-on training I received at GCC, I was able to easily obtain an internship position at TGen, which would eventually lead to my current job here at TGen,” she added.
Ramos cites Dr. James Tuohy, the Director of the GCC Biotechnology Program, as key to her educational and career path. “He is a great teacher, and it was his passion for science that inspired me to pursue a career in research,” she said, adding, “Dr. Tuohy continues to support and mentor me to this day.” She has fond memories of her time at GCC, which, she says, was the perfect place to start her college education. “The smaller classes allow students to have more meaningful interactions with the professors, and every teacher I had there was extremely knowledgeable, helpful and supportive,” she noted. “Attending GCC was a wonderful experience for me, and I recommend the school to everyone.”