National Minority Health Month Spotlight: CURE Scholar Cesar Garcia on Seeing, Believing and Becoming
, by CRCHD Staff
For National Minority Health Month, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) will feature CRCHD-supported researchers working in cancer and cancer health disparities research. This spotlight is a conversation with Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) Diversity Supplement scholar Cesar Garcia. Once inspired as a high school student by the autobiography of neurosurgeon Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, Garcia is now finishing his third and final year of cancer research in Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa’s Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. Garcia studies glioblastoma and works in establishing patient-derived brain tumor stem cell lines, with the aim of constructing preclinical models while observing sex differences.
When a Hero Becomes a Mentor
What inspired your career in cancer research?
In a way, it feels as if I fell into the world of cancer research by accident. I grew up having a love of books and read most of the time. My parents often told me that as a kid, I would try to live my life like the characters in the books I read, and they imagined I would be a writer of some kind. The idea of science didn’t really enter the picture until I started high school, which was around the time my grandfather became sick with cancer. The onset of the disease was rapid and within a year and a half, my grandfather lost the fight against cancer. It happened before I could even comprehend what cancer was, and I was astounded to later discover as I took my first high school biology classes that the tumors were caused by clumps of cells that grew over time. Up until that point, I had not understood that cancer was a description of a disease where our own body seemed to turn against us, but that alone did not inspire me to pursue a career in cancer research. Rather, it was the beginning of a desire to study science in more depth, and I was motivated to attend college.
I was lucky to grow up in a family composed of Mexican immigrants, where my parents emphasized how hard work and tenacity could be used to build a meaningful life. My grandfather had taught me this too, as he and my father have been welders for most of their lives, working at the local Lehigh cement plant in my small town of Tehachapi, located in the central valley of California. With that work ethic, I pursued the initial dream of going to college, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Yale University. As I finished my senior year of high school and prepared to move across the country, a good friend of mine loaned me a book called, “Becoming Dr. Q,” which was the autobiography of Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a Mexican-American neurosurgeon who had started from humble beginnings to become a world-class physician and researcher attempting to find a cure for a lethal form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma (GBM). When I read the book, it was the first time that I saw someone who was similar to me and my background, who had worked to become not just a neurosurgeon, but a leading figure in the fight against cancer. The story of Dr. Q demonstrated to me that I could do the same if I tried, and I remember starting college with the intention of pursuing medicine to become a neurosurgeon like Dr. Q.
When I read the book, it was the first time that I saw someone who was similar to me and my background, who had worked to become not just a neurosurgeon, but a leading figure in the fight against cancer. The story of Dr. Q demonstrated to me that I could do the same if I tried, and I remember starting college with the intention of pursuing medicine to become a neurosurgeon like Dr. Q. —Cesar Garcia, on reading the autobiography of Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, “Becoming Dr. Q,” as a high school senior.
During my first year in college, I was fortunate to meet a diverse set of peers and mentors who pushed me to start working in labs right away. My first mentor was Dr. Maria Moreno, who guided and motivated me to start research within my first few weeks of college. I first joined the lab of Dr. Anjelica Gonzalez, a professor of biomedical engineering, where I worked to study neutrophil biology and engineer vascular grafts. I had not studied cancer yet, but Dr. Gonzalez demonstrated the importance of translational research and the need to conduct experiments with the goal of one day using those discoveries to help patients. My experience in biomedical engineering and translational medicine motivated me to attempt to apply those skills toward brain cancer during my final two years of college, when I joined the lab of Dr. Jiangbing Zhou at the Yale School of Medicine. In the lab of Dr. Zhou, I worked on engineering nanoparticle libraries for the purpose of creating drug delivery systems to treat GBM. It was the beginning of what has now become my career.
My inspiration to study cancer was dictated not by a single clarifying moment, but rather from a collection of support, love and determination that had built up over the course of my life. With that, I was inspired to keep going, and so I joined the lab of Dr. Q at the Mayo Clinic to keep studying brain cancer.
Would you briefly describe your current research?
Currently I work in the Brain Tumor Stem Cell Laboratory of Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. I study (GBM) and work in establishing patient-derived brain tumor stem cell lines, with the goal of constructing preclinical models while observing sex differences. Brain tumor stem cells or brain tumor initiating cells (BTICs) are a population of cells that reside within the tumor and that can migrate away from the tumor bulk and spread throughout the brain. BTICs also carry resistance to most common treatments and are the supposed culprits of tumor recurrence. Recent research has also shown that GBM is a disease characterized by sexual dimorphism, or where sex differences exist. Overall, my work consists of isolating both male- and female-derived BTIC lines in parallel where I test their tumorigenic capacity in male and female mice. The hope is that sex differences in GBM may be better understood by carrying out parallel studies with male and female cell lines/models with the aim of using these models to create patient-specific and sex-specific therapeutics for GBM.
A second project I lead is to study how microgravity conditions affect the overall functional behaviors of patient-derived BTICs. To do so, I have performed experiments on two suborbital rocket flights conducted by EXOS Aerospace and in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic Space Medicine program and the Center for Applied Space and Technology (CAST). Because of that work, I will now conduct a microgravity experiment with BTICs aboard the International Space Station (ISS) one year from now. Tumor cells are known to be plastic and they transform in response to their environment and over time. It is hypothesized that microgravity environments can reduce tumorigenic behaviors of cancer cells, so the goal is to observe whether such transformations are observed with BTICs and whether new therapeutic pathways or targets can be identified and pursued back on Earth.
Cesar worked diligently in our laboratory at the Mayo Clinic and allowed us to establish our human brain tumor stem cell bank which has now opened doors for us to be able to understand not only sex differences but also migratory behavioral differences and the molecular engines that drive these changes in our lines directly obtained from patients. —Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa
Can you describe how you and your research have been impacted by receiving a CURE Diversity Supplement?
The CURE Diversity Supplement gave me the ability and financial support to act like a true scientist. Thanks to the supplement, I had the opportunity to design my own areas of study and to push forward my ideas. Through the failure and success of pursuing these ideas in the lab, I have been able to write my own research articles, apply for further support from other grants, travel to internationally renowned conferences, create relationships with mentors and new colleagues, and solidify my passion of dedicating my career to studying and treating cancer.
What aspirations do you have for your career?
I am about to finish my third and final year of cancer research at Mayo Clinic working with Dr. Q and his team. In August 2020, I will start medical school at Stanford University. I am excited to return to my home state of California, where I hope to continue pursuing a path toward neurosurgery or neuro-oncology.
My career path up to this point was supported by a diverse family of mentors. Each one of my PIs, advisers and major supporters in the world of science has been of Latino/a, minority and POC background, which was important to me as I found my path through science. —Cesar Garcia
Is there anything else you think would be helpful to know about you or your career path thus far?
My career path up to this point was supported by a diverse family of mentors. Each one of my PIs, advisers and major supporters in the world of science has been of Latino/a, minority and POC background, which was important to me as I found my path through science. Because of these mentors, I had the confidence in believing that I could make it this far as a Chicano and a Mexican American, and so I think that the diverse community that helped bring me up is worth celebrating.
The other major inspiration throughout my life has been hip hop. Apart from science, I am an avid breakdancer and rapper, and by being part of this culture and community, I was also motivated to pursue a path to medicine my own way. A major lesson from hip hop is to always be true to yourself and to do things in a way that expresses your unique style. Breakdance or rap battles required one to be original and to enter the competitive circle—called the cypher—with a willingness to try to hold your own. Hip hop culture gave me an outlet to express myself and to present myself as I was. With hip hop, I gained the courage to enter the competitive circle that is the world of science, and I don’t think I would have been able to come this far without it.
Visit the CURE webpage to learn more about the program.