Cedars-Sinai Cancer Leaders Assume New Roles

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 22, 2022) — Lali Medina-Kauwe, PhD, former co-leader of the Cancer Biology Program in Cedars-Sinai Cancer, has assumed a new role as associate director for Basic Research. The Cancer Biology Program will now be led by Dolores Di Vizio, MD, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Department of Surgery, and Xue Sean Li, PhD, professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Dr. Medina-Kauwe is an outstanding scientist with broad experience who will help ensure our basic science programs are well integrated and translate their research discoveries in areas relevant to the Cedars-Sinai catchment area,” said Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer and the PHASE ONE Distinguished Chair. “As co-leaders of the Cancer Biology Program, Dr. Di Vizio and Dr. Li will foster collaboration among disciplines, facilitating the translation of scientific discoveries to clinical care. All three appointments contribute to the advancement of the mission and priorities of Cedars-Sinai Cancer as a national and global center of excellence.”

Medina-Kauwe, who joined the Cedars-Sinai faculty in 2003, has a PhD in molecular biology. Her lab’s current efforts are focused on using non-infective virus proteins to deliver therapeutic agents that target triple-negative breast cancer that has metastasized to the brain.

“Many therapies cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, making these tumors difficult to target,” Medina-Kauwe said. “Our bioparticles so far show promising results.”

Cedars-Sinai has been at the forefront of developing such state-of-the-art technologies that Medina-Kauwe says support translational research across the institution. She points to the development in the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute of organoids—tiny, simplified versions of organs grown in a petri dish from patient tissues.

“This technology allowed me to test my particles in a human-derived system—something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” Medina-Kauwe said. “I’m helping to promote and support our focus on bioengineering and biomedical technologies such as this for development of research taking place within Cedars-Sinai Cancer.”

Di Vizio has been at Cedars-Sinai for 10 years. She earned her medical degree and a PhD in molecular and cell biology in Italy, did postdoctoral work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Harvard University, and was an instructor and assistant professor there before joining the Cedars-Sinai faculty. 

One important part of her research is a focus on extracellular vesicles (EVs), small “envelopes” that contain RNA, DNA and protein and are used by cells to communicate with each other. All cells in the body release EVs and they can circulate in bodily fluids.

“Cancer cells, especially when they become aggressive, release EVs that are almost surrogates of the cancer itself, but are much smaller and can circulate more easily,” Di Vizio said. “When they do, they are like weapons that weaken the defenses of organs so that the cancer can spread.”

Within the Cancer Biology Program, Di Vizio’s goal is to identify and support areas of excellence while also uplifting unique research areas that distinguish Cedars-Sinai from other cancer centers nationally.

“We are in an era of team science,” Di Vizio said. “We cannot be strong enough to project our programs into the future if we do not work together.”

Di Vizio noted tremendous synergy in her partnership with Li, who joined the Cedars-Sinai faculty two years ago. His research is focused on sex differences in development and diseases.

“Based on very robust epidemiological studies here and worldwide, males have a much higher cancer risk than females across multiple tumor types, such as bladder, liver and skin,” Li said. “And we find similar differences in animal models, which points to fundamental biological reasons rather than just lifestyle or behavior.”

As a cancer and developmental biologist, Li said questions about how the fundamental differences between males and females affect disease outcomes resonate with him. One major topic of interest is how sex chromosomes affect cancer risk. Response to therapy can also be different due to different male and female metabolisms.

“This becomes an important issue because many drugs are proposed for clinical use based on studies in males but not females,” Li said. “There is a clear need to study sex as a biological variable, and our team has the expertise.”

Li noted that his team’s work is in sync with other Cedars-Sinai institutes, including the Smidt Heart Institute, which studies sex differences in cardiovascular disease.

Because their areas of study are so different, Li said he and Di Vizio will complement each other rather than overlap.

“Having two scientists of the caliber and backgrounds of Drs. Di Vizio and Li co-lead the Cancer Biology Program will allow us to cover all programmatic needs, facilitate interaction among researchers in multiple areas of investigation, and promote areas of science that we are well positioned to lead,” Theodorescu said.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: COVID-19 and Cancer—Researchers Work to Understand Immune Responses