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National Minority Health Month Spotlight: Diana Cittelly, PhD

, by CRCHD Staff

For National Minority Health Month, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) will feature researchers and projects that are dedicated to reducing cancer health disparities. This spotlight features University of Colorado Denver Assistant Professor Diana M. Cittelly, PhD, who has earned both an NCI CRCHD Transition Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K22) and an NCI Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award for Early Stage Investigators (R37) Award.

Opportunity to Opportunity: From a K22 Award to an R37 Award

“Real-life impact.” That’s always been Dr. Diana Cittelly’s objective—pursuing research that has a “real-life impact” on people. How does Dr. Cittelly, who is the recipient of an NCI CRCHD K22 Award and an NCI R37 Award, choose to make her mark? By trying to eliminate the lethality of cancer:

…I have had close people in my life suffering from cancer, and felt the impact of the diagnoses, the treatment and the imminent sense of loss associated with cancer. Working to understand how to make cancer a non-life-threatening disease felt like an achievable goal with high real-life impact.

Dr. Cittelly charted a course for her career that aligns with that goal. She studies the development of brain metastasis, as well as ways to prevent or delay brain metastasis:

My research focuses on understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow the growth of brain metastasis, particularly for breast cancer. We have found that reactive astrocytes in the brain can respond to hormones, and in a paracrine manner support pro-metastatic pathways in breast cancer cells. Our studies support the use of anti-hormonal treatments to modulate the brain microenvironment and prevent or delay progression of brain metastasis.

In 2013, Dr. Cittelly was awarded an NCI CRCHD K22 award. Then a postdoctoral fellow, the award provided Dr. Cittelly with timely support.

“This award not only supported critical studies to solidify my research program, but it also covered training necessary for my transition to independence,” says Dr. Cittelly, citing an example—the award covered her travel expenses when she visited the laboratory of her off-site mentor, Patricia S. Steeg, PhD, at NCI, to be trained in the modeling of brain metastasis in mice.

Dr. Cittelly continues, “It also gave me protected time (covering 100% of my salary for three years) so I could devote all my effort to consolidating my research program.”

Independence. Protected time. Salary coverage. These are markers of stability in a research career. The K22 gave Dr. Cittelly the opportunity to advance her research:

The studies funded by the K22 award were the first to demonstrate that the ovarian hormone Estradiol (E2) promotes brain metastatic colonization of cancer cells that are themselves E2-unresponsive (i.e., Triple Negative Breast Cancer). E2 exert this role by acting on E2-responsive astrocytes in the brain, which in turn secrete ligands that promote migration, invasion and colonization of TNBC cells. However, this was a new way of thinking about E2 and the metastatic process, and it took several years to solidify the research to the point it was accepted by the scientific community.

Dr. Cittelly says that “thanks to the K22 award,” she published her two first senior author manuscripts and created tools (patient-derived xenografts) that made her more competitive for an R01 award.

“Without the support of the K22 award, I would not have been able to strengthen the research to make it competitive for R01 funding,” Dr. Cittelly says.

She applied for an R01 award, and was selected for an R37 award, which provides up to seven years of funding—first, a five-year award, and then an expedited review assesses whether to extend an additional two years of funding. R37 awards cannot be applied for but rather are selected. Who’s eligible?

ESIs who have submitted a single-Principal Investigator (PI) R01 application that received a score within the NCI payline are eligible for consideration. NCI program staff members will identify eligible candidate applications for the award and submit them to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) for consideration. If recommended by NCAB and approved by NCI leadership, the ESI R01 will be converted to an ESI MERIT Award (R37) for the initial five-year funding segment.

The R37 “…will further allow me to define mechanisms underlying the pro-metastatic effects of E2 in the brain and have pre-clinical evidence necessary to propose relevant clinical trials,” Dr. Cittelly explains.

Reflecting on her own career and what guidance she would offer to students and trainees, Dr. Cittelly says:

In whatever career path you chose: love what you do, surround yourself with positive, encouraging mentors, set goals and commit to achieving them, work smart, use challenges as opportunities to growth, take care of yourself, and have fun.

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