Leveraging Arsenic Research: UA SBRP Nurtures Partnerships with Premier Investigators

Donna Zhang, Ph.D.
Donna Zhang is a recent recipient of the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) Award. ONES awards identify outstanding scientists who are in the early, formative stages of their careers and intend to make a long-term career commitment to research in the mission areas of the NIEHS. As a recipient, Dr. Zhang will assist NIEHS in launching an innovative research program focusing on problems of environmental exposures and human biology, pathophysiology, and disease.

Dr. Zhang’s ONES Award will support her studies to investigate the protective role of Nrf2 in arsenic-induced toxicity and carcinogenicity. Activated by compounds possessing anti-cancer properties, the ARE-Nrf2-Keap1 signaling pathway has been clearly demonstrated to have profound effects on tumorigenesis. More significantly, Nrf2 knockout mice display increased sensitivity to chemical toxicants and carcinogens and are refractory to the protective actions of chemopreventive compounds. Her laboratory hypothesizes that activation of the ARE-Nrf2-Keap1 pathway acts as an endogenous protective system against arsenic-induced toxicity and carcinogenicity.

Dr. Zhang’s research initiatives are bridging the research within the Center for Toxicology’s Southwest Environmental Health Center and Superfund Basic Research Program. We are excited to have her on our team.

Bernard Futscher, Ph.D.
Dr. Futscher provides an excellent model for translational research. His project will identify epigenetic biomarkers of environmental exposure to arsenic.  Dr. Futscher’s laboratory is developing an in-depth understanding of epigenetic mechanisms that govern cell fate which will allow for the development of more effective strategies for the prevention, treatment, and cure of cancer.  Initially, the laboratory identifies which epigenetic mechanisms participate in the transcriptional control of genes important to growth and differentiation. Second, they determine how these epigenetic mechanisms, and therefore epigenetic homeostasis, become compromised during oncogenesis. Utilizing their new and more complete understanding of epigenetic control of the genome, Dr. Futscher is developing rational new therapeutic strategies that seek to repair these defects in the cancer cell and transcriptionally reprogram the malignant cancer cell to a benign state.

A variety of in vitro models of cancer have been developed to address emerging hypotheses that are inferred from the literature in basic and clinical science as well as their own data. Results from these in vitro studies are then translated to the clinical situation to determine their meaning in the actual clinical face of the disease. In addition, Dr. Futscher’s laboratory attempts to take the information obtained from the genome-wide assessment of clinical specimens to help guide the development of new hypotheses that can be tested experimentally in in vitro models.

For example, Dr. Futscher has collaborated with the U.S. – Mexico Binational Center for Environmental Sciences and Toxicology former student, María Mercedes Meza Montenegro, Ph.D., a former U.S. Training, Internships, Exchanges, and Scholarships (TIES) recipient now working at the Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora (ITSON). Together, they received an NIEHS grant entitled: “Epigenetic Remodeling by Environmental Arsenicals”.

Sections of the text were taken from The University of Arizona College of Pharmacy directory.
Photos by Margaret Hartshorn, Biomedical Communications, Provided by UA College of Pharmacy.