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Grantee Spotlight: Dana-Lynn Koomoa-Lange, Ph.D.- Exploring Chemical Pathways to Hinder Development of Neuroblastoma

September 23, 2014, by CRCHD Staff

Dana-Lynn Koomoa-Lange, Ph.D. is exploring signaling pathways in the progression of neuroblastoma (NB), a nervous system cancer, in an effort to develop new drugs to thwart the disease.

Koomoa-Lange is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, University of Hawaii in Hilo. She is studying the interplay between signal transduction and calcium signaling pathways in the malignant progression of neuroblastoma (the most common extra-cranial pediatric solid tumor). Her research is being funded by an NCI CRCHD CURE K01 grant.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that arises in immature nerve cells that make up the sympathetic nervous system, and affects mostly infants and children. It is by far the most common cancer in infants (less than 1 year old) and it accounts for about 7% of all cancers in children. There are about 700 new cases of NB each year in the United States. New drug treatments are being investigated for patients with NB, but so far finding an effective treatment strategy for advanced stage NB has remained elusive.

Much of Koomoa-Lange’s work is focused on cancers, such as NB, which are driven by expression of the proto-oncogene MYCN (which codes for a transcription factor)and how it is associated with advanced stage, high-risk cancers and poor prognosis. Koomoa-Lange’s lab investigates the role of ion channel proteins and channel regulatory proteins that are often deregulated in cancer and tumor progression, and she pays particular attention to whether or not the ion channels are changed by MYCN amplification. Her work has shown that calcium and magnesium ion channels, and channel regulatory proteins, play a critical role in regulating neuroblastoma tumor growth and metastasis, while inhibitors of these proteins will inhibit tumor progression. Koomoa-Lange hopes to identify new biomarkers for advanced stage NB, in an effort to reveal novel targets for the development of more effective anti-cancer drugs.

She is also investigating the role of these proteins in other patho-physiological processes of immune cell function and central nervous system disorders. Her research involves the use of molecular biological, biochemical and biophysical techniques.

Koomoa-Lange’s K01 grant has given her the “opportunity to work with other scientists studying neuroblastoma across the country” and to form a Committee of Advisors and experts on developing new ways to research neuroblastoma.

Additionally, Koomoa-Lange stated that the K01 made a huge difference in her career and allowed her to “not only focus on research but allowed me to give back to the community and mentor young Native Hawaiians seeking careers in science.” She is currently mentoring high school, undergraduate, and graduate Native Hawaiian students in her lab. The students are learning about molecular biology and pharmacology and are using this knowledge to research Native Hawaiian plants for medicinal purposes.

“I absolutely love mentoring and it allows me to give back to the community,” Koomoa-Lange said. When Koomoa-Lange was studying for her degrees, she did not know of any other Native Hawaiian scientists to have as a mentor, something she feels augments a young scholar’s experience and helps pave a path to a successful career. Kooma-Lange shared that a mentor would have been especially helpful to her due to differences between the Hawaiian culture and scientific/research expectations. For example, she explained Hawaiian culture respects deference, humility, and giving back to the community, whereas a career in science requires a more aggressive, self- promoting approach. Now, Koomoa-Lange hopes she can be a role model to other Native Hawaiians, helping to increase their participation in science and showing the students that you can respect your culture and still be a successful scientist.     

Koomoa-Lange grew up on Oahu, Hawaii. “My love for science and my aspirations to be a teacher all come from my parents.” Her father was a roofer by training, but was very well read and encouraged learning in his children. “He took us to the beach where we learned more than just swimming and collecting sea shells. He taught us about our environment, in particular marine biology and ecology,” she said. “My mother always told us that if you don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck, then you need to get a good education.”

Koomoa-Lange received her bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA and her Ph.D. from Brown University in Providence, RI. She was a post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, HI, and held a second post-doctoral position with the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii.

Koomoa-Lange has received numerous awards including most recently the Keystone Travel Award to attend the Keystone Symposia on Cancer and Cell Death (2014), the Keystone Fellow award (2013), and the American Association for Cancer Research Minority Scholar Award (2011), The Carl Storm Travel Award (2007), The UH Travel award (2008), and the Helen F. Cserr Memorial Fellow Award (2005).

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