Lymphoma Expert Joins the Department of Pathology to Diagnose and Research Blood Cancers

Francisco Vega, M.D., Ph.D., an expert in the diagnosis and investigation of cancers arising from the blood and lymphatic system, has been appointed director of hematopathology in the Department of Pathology. Formerly head of the Lymphoma Section at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Department of Hematopathology, Vega officially joined the Miller School and Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center September 1.

“We are delighted to welcome Francisco Vega as Director of our Division of Hematopathology,’’ said Richard J. Cote, M.D., Professor and Joseph R. Coulter Jr. Chair of Pathology and Chief of Pathology at Jackson Memorial Hospital. “He brings a focused research program that will interact with the outstanding hematologic/oncology program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and a depth of clinical expertise that will make him an outstanding leader of our already superb hematopathology group.”

Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., expressed equal delight in having a physician-scientist of Dr. Vega’s caliber join Sylvester. “His expertise in the hematological malignancies, honed over many years as a hematopathologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas, will add greatly to our ability to provide cutting-edge diagnostic evaluations, and state-of-the-art treatments for our patients,” Nimer said.

Vega said he was attracted to the Miller School and Sylvester by the opportunity to work with top-notch pathologists and clinicians at such well-regarded pathology and hematology/oncology departments. “I expect to bring to the University of Miami and Sylvester Cancer Center my unlimited and unconditional enthusiasm for both scientific investigation and clinical service,” he said. “I will do my best to help patients with hematolymphoid malignancies.”

An expert in interpreting bone marrow core biopsies, aspirate specimens, lymph node and tissue biopsies and conducting immunophenotypic and molecular studies, Vega will diagnose specimens from patients undergoing evaluation for leukemia or lymphoma. He also will continue his exploration of the role of Hedgehog proteins, a group of secreted signaling molecules critical to normal human tissue and organ development, in the pathobiology of malignant lymphomas, particularly diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common lymphoid malignancy in adults.

Vega and his team already have demonstrated that Hedgehog signaling is aberrantly activated in high-grade B- and T-cell lymphomas and that this aberrant behavior contributes to deregulated autonomous cell growth and to the survival and chemotolerance of lymphoma cells. Published in the journal Blood in June, his latest paper specifically showed that components of the Hedgehog pathway contribute to the transmission of proliferation and survival signals inside of tumor cells. The findings have important implications for understanding how the major oncogenic pathways interact in lymphomas and for the development of more effective and focused therapies.

“We are trying to understand how survival and proliferative signals generated outside the tumor cells are transmitted inside of the lymphoma cells and contribute to the lymphoma growth and resistance to chemotherapy,” Vega explained. “If we understand how these mechanisms work, we may be able to develop effective therapeutics to interrupt it and increase the chemosensitivity of the lymphoma cells.”

In addition to his translational research, Vega has been a prolific contributor to diagnostic hematopathology, with multiple published clinicopathologic studies. He also serves as a reviewer and/or member of several national and international grant study section committees.

Born in Spanish Galicia, Vega came by his career interest naturally. His father is a retired pathologist and his mother a retired hematologist. After leaving his Galician village at age 17 to earn his medical degree from the University Complutense in Madrid, he completed his Ph.D. in cell biology from the University of Navarra in Pamplona.

His postgraduate training included two clinical residencies in anatomic pathology, one at the Clinica Universitaria of Navarra in Spain, and the other at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He also completed a clinical fellowship in hematopathology at MD Anderson Cancer Center and two research fellowships, one in hematopathology at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the other in pathology at Baylor College of Medicine.

In addition to his faculty position in the department of hematopathology at MD Anderson, Vega also was on the faculty at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and a member of the Human and Molecular Genetics Program and the Experimental Therapeutics Program of the University of Texas. He looks forward to continuing his role as a mentor to students, residents, fellows and researchers at the Miller School and Sylvester.

“At MD Anderson Cancer Center and The University of Texas, one of my greatest pleasures was supervising hematopathology fellows, residents and research trainees, from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows, several of whom won clinical and research awards,” he said. “I am looking forward to teaching and supervising trainees with both clinical and research backgrounds here at the Miller School of Medicine and Sylvester Cancer Center.”

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