In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

August 1, 2017

Mayo Astrobiologist Uses NASA Experience in the Fight Against Cancer

By In the Loop

Can what we know about the way organisms grow and behave in outer space help us better understand and treat human diseases such as cancer? That’s a question that Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio and her research team at Mayo Clinic are currently trying to answer.

Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio arrived at Mayo Clinic with a NASA background, which she's using in her quest to find better prevention and treatment options for gynecological cancers.

Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D., was training at NASA's Astrobiology Institute when she first realized a link between medicine and her work as an astrobiologist. While researching how single-celled organisms evolved into multicellular organisms, she discovered that "cancer researchers were examining some of the same pathways to understand how cancer develops and spreads."

In a post on Mayo Clinic's Individualized Medicine blog, Dr. Walther-Antonio says one of those "pathways" involves examining whether what's known about the way organisms grow in outer space can help us better understand and treat diseases here on Earth. (We were wondering about that, too.)

It's the kind of work Dr. Walther-Antonio did while at NASA, and the kind of work she says she's looking forward to continuing at Mayo Clinic as part of the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine Microbiome Program. "When I was recruited to come to Mayo, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to medical research," she says.

At Mayo, Dr. Walther-Antonio is using her knowledge of the "biology of extreme environments" found on other planets to study "the community of bacteria in and on the human body, known as the microbiome." The research could "unlock the biological processes" that can lead to gynecological cancers, with the goal of developing "better individualized prevention, screening and treatment," she says.

"In my earlier work with NASA, I was conducting research that would not be completed in my lifetime but would impact future generations," Dr. Walther-Antonio says. "As a medical researcher, I hope to make an impact on patients now and in the future."

Dr. Walther-Antonio is doing just that by "creating technology that allows us to observe single microbes in their environment in a way that we haven't before," Nicholas Chia, Ph.D., associate director of Mayo's Center for Individualized Medicine Microbiome Program, says. "Dr. Walther-Antonio's research on endometrial cancer will potentially cut a decade-long scientific process into just a couple of years."

In true Mayo fashion, Dr. Walther-Antonio says she's not doing it alone. "Our team includes geologists, microbiologists, physicists, computer scientists and engineers, all working together to focus on the same problem," she says. Working with a diverse team has many benefits, she says, including the development of unique equipment, such as "an optofluidics tool, which merges a microscope with an optical laser tweezer."

While we're not sure what optofluidics tools and optical laser tweezers are, they sound pretty cool, as does the potential they bring. They're going to help her and others at Mayo better examine "whether the endometrial microbiome plays a role in the development of endometrial cancer," according to Dr. Walther-Antonio. And that's something you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand.

You can read more about Dr. Walther-Antonio's research work at Mayo Clinic here. Then send us into orbit by sharing your comments below. You can use the handy social media tools to share this story with others.


Tags: Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio, Employee Stories, Individualized Medicine, Research News

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