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A Family’s Experience Inspires a Career in Pancreatic Cancer Research

With support from NCI, Dr. Florencia McAllister is pursuing new ways to prevent and treat pancreatic cancer.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Florencia McAllister, M.D.

Florencia McAllister, M.D., has dedicated her career and her research to pancreatic cancer since watching her mother succumb to the disease. “The pathologist showed me her tumor. It was just the tiniest tumor,” she said. “It was unbelievable that just a few months afterward she would have a liver full of metastases.” Pancreatic cancer often spreads to the liver. As a doctor, this experience made Florencia more empathetic to what people with cancer and their families go through. It also drove her as a researcher.

Her path to becoming a physician–scientist started in Argentina when, at age 15, she set her sights on a medical degree. A 1-month training opportunity at a US university hospital after finishing medical school piqued her interest in research. Florencia then joined a laboratory in New Orleans and began studying how gene therapy can modulate the immune system to fight infections.

When that laboratory moved to Pennsylvania, Florencia relocated with it and learned how to set up a new lab. “I learned research by doing it, through hands-on experience,” she reflected on her career journey. She completed her medical residency while conducting research. It was during this time that Florencia lost her mother, and she pivoted her research focus to cancer.

She pursued fellowships in oncology and clinical pharmacology and gained further expertise in cancer genetics, mouse models, and tumor immunology until she accepted her current tenure-track position at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Her research remains centered around pancreatic cancer, which is often diagnosed at a late stage, lacks effective treatments, and has a high death rate.

Using mouse models, she found that immune cells that secrete a particular protein, IL-17, promote the growth of pancreatic tumors. And some bacteria in the gut may be partly responsible for triggering a response by the immune cells that secrete IL-17 and so increase IL-17 levels in the body. To further study how gut bacteria may trigger immune responses, and to develop interventions to treat pancreatic cancer with the long-term goal of preventing it, Florencia applied for and received an NCI individual investigator award (R01) and was happy to learn that NCI had converted her grant to a MERIT Award (R37).

The R37 award provides the possibility of 2 additional years of funding, for a total of 7 years of support. “It’s fantastic for anyone who is starting their research career,” Florencia stated. “To have that extra time is super helpful. It gives me security so that I can, for a good amount of time, continue pursuing my cancer research rather than spend a lot of time applying for a lot of grants.” Florencia intends to spend that time pursuing better ways to treat pancreatic cancer in her mother’s memory.

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