Skip to main content

Mission of the Program in Cancer Biology

To train new leaders in the field of Cancer Biology that will develop new knowledge that will translate into improved detection, diagnosis, prognosis, prevention, or treatment of cancer.

Research Areas of Emphasis

  • Cancer Immunity, host tumor interactions, and angiogenesis
  • Cancer Precision Medicine—targeted therapies and drug resistance using mouse modeling, human tumor tissues, and systems approaches
  • Bioinformatic analyses of tumor heterogeneity including genome, proteome, metabolome, and immunome components during tumor progression
  • Basic Cancer Biology—tumor progression, invasion and metastasis

Steering Committee

Ann Richmond, Program Director
Rachelle Johnson, Director of Graduate Studies
Jin Chen
Barbara Fingleton
Vito Quaranta
Kimryn Rathmell
Julie Sterling
Alissa Weaver
Chris Williams

News & Events

Patricia Midori Murobushi Ozawa, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.
(Weaver Lab)
Dr. Ozawa’s research focuses on cancer biomarkers based on extracellular vesicles (EVs). The idea is to target transmembrane proteins present in EVs specific to the cancer patient. She is also working in collaboration with Ariana von Lersner to develop a microflow cytometry analysis to validate these markers on plasma. Patty enjoys working out, going on hikes, playing with her pets, and playing board games outside the lab.

Melissa A Fischer, MS, PhD, Research Assistant Professor.  Dr. Fischer received her PhD in Biochemistry from Vanderbilt University in 2011 and joined the Savona Lab in 2015. Her graduate work focused on the role of Myeloid Translocation Gene 16 (MTG16, also known as ETO2), which is disrupted in Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) by the translocation t(16;21). In the Savona lab, she studies hematopoiesis and tests novel drug therapies for myeloid malignancies. She has optimized high throughput methods to screen malignant myeloid cells for response to inhibitors. In addition, she spearheads the development of three-dimensional stromal models to study myelodysplastic cells ex vivo.

Alex Silver, BA
Alex is an MSTP student who joined the Savona Laboratory in 2019; he is studying clonal hematopoiesis and how this common age-associated phenomenon contributes to human disease. Clonal hematopoiesis, or the presence of an acquired mutation in the blood without evidence of blood cancer, affects roughly 10% of the population over 70 years of age. Clonal hematopoiesis leads to an increased risk of developing a hematologic malignancy and can increase the risk for inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis. In his research, Alex has been using CRISPR knock-in models and Vanderbilt’s linked EHR database/DNA biobank to look at phenotypes associated with specific clonal hematopoiesis mutations. In a recent study published in Nature Medicine, he worked with team members in the Savona lab and collaborators in New York City on research showing that first responders to the World Trade Center disaster have a higher prevalence of clonal hematopoiesis than matched firefighter controls who were not exposed. Before joining the Savona lab for his graduate studies, he worked for two years as a technician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the lab of Dr. Benjamin Ebert, studying the causal relationship of clonal hematopoiesis to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in mouse models. A native of Massachusetts, Alex attended Williams College. When he’s not busy doing science, he enjoys running, reading, trying new recipes, and spending time with family, friends, and his dog, Griffin. Alex’s recent publication in Nature Medicine.

Haley Ramsey, PhD. Research Assistant Professor
(Savona Lab)
Dr. Haley Ramsey received her BSc from the University of Tennessee and her PhD from the Medical University of Vienna. She was credited with creating the first murine model of alloreactive mismatch T memory cells for use in bone marrow, heart, and skin transplantation studies. Before moving to Vanderbilt in 2015, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, where she studied myelodysplastic syndrome and hemostasis. She is the recipient of awards from the American Society of Hematology, Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Roche. Her expertise in modeling malignant hematologic disorders is accompanied by her interest in determining the underlying mechanisms of novel cancer therapies.

Jennifer Noto, PhD. Research Assistant Professor, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, & Nutrition.
Dr. Noto received her BS in biology from the University of Mary Washington and her PhD in microbiology and immunology from the Virginia Commonwealth University.  Dr. Noto completed her postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Richard Peek, MD, Vanderbilt University. Her recent publication in J Clin Invest examines how Gastric carcinogenesis is mediated by complex interactions among Helicobacter pylori, host, and environmental factors. They demonstrated that H. pylori augments gastric injury in INS-GAS mice under iron-deficient conditions. Mechanistically, these phenotypes were not driven by alterations in the gastric microbiota; however, discovery-based and targeted metabolomics revealed that bile acids were significantly altered in H. pylori-infected mice with iron deficiency, with significant upregulation of deoxycholic acid (DCA), a carcinogenic bile acid. The severity of gastric injury was further augmented when H. pylori-infected mice were treated with DCA. In vitro, DCA increased the translocation of the H. pylori oncoprotein CagA into host cells. Conversely, bile acid sequestration attenuated H. pylori-induced injury under iron deficiency conditions. To translate these findings into human populations, the association between bile acid-sequestrant use and gastric cancer risk was evaluated in a large human cohort. Among 416,885 tested individuals, a significant dose-dependent reduction in risk was associated with cumulative bile acid-sequestrant use.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study precancerous lesions and early cancers in the colon to develop new ways to prevent colorectal cancer, the nation’s second leading cancer killer. Robert Coffey MD, Martha Shrubsole PhD, and Ken Lau PhD, are VUMC’s project leaders for the grant, one of five awarded this year under the Institute’s Translational and Basic Science Research in Early Lesions (TBEL) program.

Andreana Holowatyj, PhD, MSCI, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology, has been named the inaugural chair of the scientific advisory board for the Appendix Cancer Pseudomyxoma Peritonei Research Foundation. The foundation’s research grant program has historically been administered by the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). However, as part of the foundation’s next chapter, spurred by significant growth in recent years, it is now positioned to launch an internally administered program that will accord it greater flexibility and precision in research funding.