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UTHSC Cancer Researcher Part of $3 Million Collaborative Project Studying Obesity-Related Cancer

Dr. Liza Makowski

A University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) researcher is a member of a prestigious team that has just received a highly competitive Endeavor Award totaling $3 million from The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research.

Liza Makowski, PhD professor in Hematology and Oncology at the UTHSC Center for Cancer Research, is a co-principal investigator on the award, which funds collaborative projects tackling complex challenges in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Entitled “Inflammatory Drivers of The Obesity-Cancer Connection”, the project is led by principal investigator Jeffrey Rathmell, PhD, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Immunobiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Immunobiology. Along with Dr. Makowski are co-principal investigators Alyssa Hasty, PhD, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University, and Kathryn Wellen, PhD, professor of Cancer Biology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Jeffrey Rathmell

Obesity leads to greater risk of developing at least 13 cancers and is associated with worse outcomes for patients after treatment. However, it appears that in some cases, an “obesity paradox” exists wherein obese patients treated with a new type of therapy, immunotherapy, have better responses. How obesity leads to increased and worse cancer, but improved therapeutic outcomes for some is poorly understood.

Working with physicians Kathryn Beckermann, MD, PhD, and Kamran Idrees, MD, both at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the team will focus on three types of obesity-associated cancers: renal, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers over the next three years. Their goals are to improve care for the growing number of obese cancer patients, and identify immune and metabolic biomarkers in obesity-associated cancers that may provide therapeutic guidance. The team intends to translate its findings to other cancers.

“I am excited to embark on this Endeavor Award to uncover novel insights into the complex interplay between obesity, the immune system, and cancer,” Dr. Makowski said. “Obesity is at epidemic levels in the U.S. and globally, and is especially concerning here in the Mid-South where death from cancer, is at the highest levels in the country.”

Dr. Makowski has been studying obesity and the immune system for over two decades, and is an expert in obesity-related inflammation, macrophages, and cancer. She has established approaches to immune phenotype adipose and tumors and to combine these data with tumor genetics and microbiome analyses.