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Dr. Liza Makowski Aims to Transform Cancer Care by Understanding Obesity and Cancer Connections

Liza Makowski, PhD, is a prolific researcher determined to continue learning about the links between obesity and cancer in hopes of providing better care for patients.

When Liza Makowski, PhD, moved to Memphis to join the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she amplified her goal of making a difference in the cancer space.

Dr. Makowski leads the Makowski Lab at UT Health Science Center, with a goal to study how obesity and immune cells like white blood cells affect cancer risk and cancer outcomes. “I’ve always been interested in obesity and how weight gain or weight loss changes the immune system which can affect how we get cancer, how we treat cancer, and how we prevent cancer from coming back,” she said. Since 2020, she has received more than $12.6 million in grant funding as either a principal investigator, a multiple principal investigator, or a mentor for her trainees at UT Health Science Center.

Dr. Makowski is a professor in the College of Medicine’s Division of Hematology-Oncology and has joint appointments in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry and the College of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. She also serves as an associate director for Education and Development for UT Health Science Center’s Center for Cancer Research, which is directed by her husband, Neil Hayes, MD, MPH, chief of Hematology and Oncology in the College of Medicine.

The couple moved to Memphis with their three children in 2017 and have dedicated the past seven years to increasing UT Health Science Center’s status as a cancer research institution to benefit the state of Tennessee and the Mid-South region. Dr. Makowski has a dream to help develop UT Health Science Center into a world-class adult cancer center with a widespread impact on patients’ lives. However, if someone had told her at the beginning of her career this would be her goal one day, she might not have believed them.

Her Journey to Memphis

After spending the first part of her life on Long Island, New York, Dr. Makowski attended Boston College to study animal behavior. She was on a pre-med track, but she realized she did not want to become a physician. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she worked for a few years in labs in both the private sector and in an academic setting, but her career took a turn after her mother got breast cancer and had to undergo two rounds of treatment.

Dr. Makowski moved back home to take care of her mother while studying to get into graduate school. She attended the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and obtained her PhD in nutritional biochemistry. “Nutrition was something that anybody could understand and relate to, and it was also applicable to studying disease outcomes and disease risk,” she said. “Completing my PhD in a school of public health was impactful. Even though I was doing biochemistry and cell biology in a lab, I was always surrounded by patient studies and population health.”

While working toward her PhD, she took advantage of an opportunity to get a master’s degree from Harvard Medical School as a Lucille P. Markey funded fellow. According to Dr. Makowski, getting these dual degrees provided a strong foundation for her research career.

“I was fortunate to complete one and a half years of medical school at Harvard Medical School to get a master’s in medical science. It completely opened my mind to doing translational science from the bench to bedside that is applicable to patient health and improving the health of the population. This broad base for my early education has bridged connections to colleagues across many fields to help fuel my research,” she said.

Dr. Makowski said her PhD in nutritional biochemistry and her master’s degree in medical sciences provided a unique foundation and important connections that have benefited her throughout her career.

Early in her career, Dr. Makowski focused on diabetes and heart disease research. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in metabolism at Duke University Medical Center and then joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. In her first week as an assistant professor at UNC, she learned of a colleague who studied breast cancer and inspired Dr. Makowski to pivot toward cancer research.

“The route I followed into breast cancer research was serendipitous,” she said. “I met a colleague who was examining the breast before a patient develops cancer. What’s amazing is that breast tissue has a lot of fatty tissue, so having studied obesity and fatty tissue, we hit it off immediately.”

According to Dr. Makowski, her background of research in obesity and metabolism gives her a unique perspective as she works to understand the microenvironment, or neighborhood, in which cancer develops and grows in hopes of learning more about what feeds cancer and what can be used to fight it.

Her Latest Research Accomplishments

Dr. Makowski’s strategy to bridge her interests in obesity and cancer has been successful, especially since over two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Among her lab’s recent accomplishments is an article published in the prestigious journal, Science Advances. This study, supported by the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, demonstrated that the kinase C delta signaling protein controls a certain immune cell type and hinders the body’s response to immunotherapy in multiple cancer types.

Since joining UT Health Science Center, Dr. Makowski has continued to focus on collaboration, which she said has helped her secure major grant funding. One of these grants is a $5.2 million award from the National Cancer Institute to study the link between cancer and obesity. The WELCOM Study, which stands for Weight Loss and Cancer Outcomes in the Mid-South, is a project that includes researchers from UT Health Science Center, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Vanderbilt University, the University of Memphis, and Wake Forest University. The study is part of the nationwide consortium called the Metabolic Dysregulation and Cancer Risk Program (MeDOC) funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The WELCOM team is recruiting participants and collecting fecal samples, body scans, dietary data, and other tests to help them understand how gut microbes and immune cells change with being lean, obese, or after weight loss. They are interested in both bariatric surgery and drugs such as Ozempic, and how weight loss can potentially protect against cancer.

Dr. Makowski and her lab have received millions of dollars in grants from organizations including the National Institutes of Health, the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, the Mary Kay Ash Foundation, and the American Heart Association.

Dr. Makowski is a co-principal investigator on another collaborative project funded by a highly competitive Endeavor Award totaling $3 million from the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research. The team, led by Jeffrey Rathmell, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology, includes some of Dr. Makowski’s former colleagues from her time at Harvard and Duke. The goals for this project are to improve care for the growing number of obese cancer patients and identify key signals or biomarkers that may provide therapeutic guidance.

Another collaboration led by Dr. Makowski is a $2.1 million project funded by the National Cancer Institute examining how the biochemicals made by the gut microbiome impact the immune system and response to immunotherapy for breast cancer. The project began as a collaboration with Joseph F. Pierre, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“Dr. Pierre and I both had a common interest in obesity and nutrition, but he had never studied cancer, and I had never examined the gut microbiome,” she said. “He taught my lab how to conduct weight-loss surgical interventions to study obesity and weight loss. With these highly technical advances, we can compare and contrast different body states in pre-clinical studies and cancer. Our goal is to identify a biochemical biomarker as a novel target to treat patients to improve outcomes in the clinic.”

Dr. Makowski is also the lead investigator on a $2.05 million grant from the National Cancer Institute for an advanced genetics project to identify and validate underlying genes in breast cancer, aimed at enabling advances in targeted therapies and personalized treatment. For this study, Dr. Makowski’s team used preclinical models and advanced computational approaches in partnership with colleagues from the UT Health Science Center College of Medicine’s Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics, including Department Chair Robert Williams, PhD.

“When I told people I was moving to UT Health Science Center, everyone said, ‘You’ve got to meet Dr. Rob Williams,’ because he’s a renowned mouse geneticist,” Dr. Makowski said. “This team has an incredible preclinical model with great genetic diversity that has been deeply studied for 40-plus years at UT Health Science Center and other institutes. We took advantage of this opportunity to test outcomes in breast cancer.”

Throughout her career following her interests in nutrition and metabolism to cancer immunology, Dr. Makowski has thrived on collaborations. Her catch phrase is to “work with winners.” At UT Health Science Center, she has been able to accomplish more in different scientific areas than she ever imagined, she said.

Her Goals to Leave a Mark

Dr. Makowski and her lab are diligently pursuing her ultimate research goal, “to understand why people are getting cancer and find ways to design therapeutics to improve cancer outcomes.”

One thing that drew Dr. Makowski and her family to Memphis was the state of health in the region. Memphis and western Tennessee, along with the Appalachian region of East Tennessee, have some of the highest rates of cancer-related deaths in the country, which corresponds with several public health concerns. As her research and the work of the Center for Cancer Research continue to progress, Dr. Makowski aspires to help make UT Health Science Center into an institution that has a significant and direct impact for cancer patients.

“If we could build an adult cancer center, similar to what St. Jude has built for childhood cancer, we can have an impact across the state of Tennessee, from Memphis to the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she said. “UT Health Science Center is a home for top-notch research. We all have a great opportunity to grow and to impact patients with cancer.”

Dr. Makowski takes great pride in her trainees. Medical students, graduate students, and fellows in her lab have received funding from the NIH, various foundations, and industry organizations.

As she strives toward this large goal, Dr. Makowski is confident in the smaller impacts she has every day in the lab. Not only does her research have the potential to save lives in the future, but through her mentorship, she plays a role in shaping the future of scientific research.

“I tell my lab all the time, ‘I don’t think I’m going to win a Nobel Prize, but I can train students and fellows to be the best scientists possible, conducting next-level experiments,’” she said. “That will be my legacy – training these young people to be the next generation of researchers, and then they’ll train their trainees, and together we’ll carry on a love of doing exciting and impactful cancer research that will impact Memphis, the Mid-South, and beyond.”