Sylvester Researcher Wins Prestigious Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Award

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has presented its Scholar Award to Maria Figueroa, M.D., co-leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Program and assistant director for translational research at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and associate professor of human genetics.

The $550,000 grant will allow Figueroa to expand her team and advance its research. ”We are studying what I consider to be the Number One risk factor for cancer – and the National Cancer Institute considers it Number One as well – aging.

“Unfortunately, unless your name is Dorian Gray, there is not much we can do about aging.” Figueroa said. “Even though aging is not preventable, maybe there are things we can do to manipulate its effects.”

For example, Figueroa and her team are identifying age-related factors in the blood that may signal an increased risk of developing leukemia in the elderly. “We have identified many candidate genes that we think, because they change during aging, put us at risk for developing cancer. This offers an opportunity to understand mechanisms of how cancer begins in the elderly.

“Once you understand the mechanism, you can hopefully target it to prevent it or treat it more effectively once it develops.”

The research is still at the basic science level. “I used to be a practicing physician, so in my lab we are always looking at how this can be applied to patients,” Figueroa said. “The hope is soon we will be in a translational phase with the research.”

The expertise at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer, led by Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., is critical. “Dr. Nimer has done a fantastic job of bringing together a critical mass of investigators with expertise in cancer epigenetics, which is the component we study in aging, as well as experts in hematologic malignancies,” Figueroa said. “There is also a strong expertise in the cancer control program that looks at environmental exposures during our lifetime.

“All of this makes Sylvester the perfect environment to study this type of disease.”

The Scholar Award is not Figueroa’s first support from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). For example, she received her first LLS support, a career development award, in 2010. “I’m very thankful not just for this Scholar Award, but for all their support throughout my career. I admire what LLS does to really support hematologic malignancy research. They fundraise, help patients, provide information and support investigators.

“And it’s not just me. They are very supportive of the University of Miami and Sylvester as a whole,” Figueroa said.

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