Oscar Rene Colegio, MD, PhD

Associate Professor of Dermatology, Transplant, and Pathology

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Understanding the Immune Response to Cancer

While much is known about the genetic basis of cancer, until recently, less has been known about the role of the immune system in the progression of cancer. Oscar Colegio, MD, PhD, aims to change that by studying tumor immunology to unravel how the immune response can lead to tumor growth.

His research is linked to his clinical work caring for solid organ transplant recipients, who are on an immunosuppressant regimen and have a one hundred-fold increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. His 2010 Scholar project focused on the role of macrophages, cells in the innate immune system that are found in all tumors. His hypothesis that communication between cancer cells and macrophages led to their activation and increased tumor growth proved to be correct.

Working in collaboration with his mentor, Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD, David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology, Dr. Colegio went on to discover that lactic acid, a byproduct of cancer cell metabolism that has largely been overlooked, transforms macrophages into abettors of tumor growth. He has also found that certain key enzymes within macrophages are critical for supporting tumor progression and is currently exploring whether their inhibition can lead to tumor regression.

Dr. Colegio’s collaborations with the Yale-New Haven Transplantation Center and Yale Cancer Center illustrate the benefits of crossing boundaries to train the next generation of investigators. Moving from mouse models to human cells, he is excited about the possible wider implications of his findings in developing cancer therapies that target macrophages or inhibit enzymes that play a role in tumor growth.

According to Dr. Colegio, the education and access to facilities afforded by the Scholar award have had a profound impact on his research. A sample grant he wrote during the grant writing course led to an award from the National Cancer Institute, which funds his current work. He has also received biostatistical support from the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences and found the Research in Progress seminars to be very helpful. “YCCI has provided very practical concrete support that is essential for investigators to have as they move their research forward,” he said. As his research progresses, he continues to turn to YCCI. “I keep going back to YCCI for all sorts of resources,” he said.