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Not many researchers can say they study a protein named after a video game character. But that’s the case with Yana Zavros, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of molecular and cellular physiology and co-director of the PhD program in systems biology and physiology. Her study of gastric cancer involves the role of Sonic Hedgehog (Shh), named after the video game character "Sonic the Hedgehog” by its discoverers in 1995. Sonic Hedgehog is highly expressed in the adult stomach, and its loss via inflammation or disease contributes to molecular changes that are crucial to development of gastric cancer.
Share a bit about your current research focus.
"Gastric cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide. In the United States, approximately 21,000 new cases are diagnosed with a survival rate of less than 15 percent. Chronic gastric inflammation, typically caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), is the most consistent lesion leading to cancer. We have shown that Sonic Hedgehog, a protein originally identified for its role in embryogenesis, also regulates adult epithelial cell homeostasis and the progression of disease. The overall focus of our research is to define the mechanisms by which Sonic Hedgehog acts as a constituent of gastric epithelial cell homeostasis and disease progression."
What implications might your research have on patient care?
"As an outcome of our studies, we hope to advance our current knowledge of gastric biology, especially the aspects that are important in understanding the role of H. pylori as a carcinogen. The acquisition of such knowledge may be the first step in a continuum of research required to identify novel targets and interactions that may be applied as biomarkers for cancer diagnostics, prognostics and targeted therapeutics."
What drew you into this kind of research?
"I earned my PhD in gastric physiology and gained an understanding into how the stomach works—in particular, regulation of the gastric hormones and peptides. My PhD was purely on physiology, nothing on disease. But after I completed my PhD I wanted to apply that to disease, so I stayed in the field."
Have you ever played the "Sonic the Hedgehog” video game?
"No. But I’ve seen it on television."