Rafael Garcia-Mata enjoys doing his research. He especially likes doing experiments. Thanks to a trio of grants from the National Institute of Health's National Cancer Institute, the assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Toledo has been studying how cancer cells spread through the body.
"When you are actually at the bench, doing the research, and getting the results, that's always the exciting part," he said. "When you're doing something that nobody else has done and you are designing and thinking about experiments to answer the questions and putting everything together."
Awarded last year, the grants are helping fund Garcia-Mata's research, which includes triple negative breast cancer. The funding will last another year or two. Mostly related to each other in nature, the grants allow Garcia-Mata to hire staff, buy equipment, travel, and gives him more "freedom and flexibility" in his research.
According to Garcia-Mata, about 40 percent of his job is dedicated to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, and around 60 percent is spent on research. His lab is primarily dedicated to problems regarding cancer biology.
"We study some of the fundamental processes in the cell that show us some of the properties of the cell. One of the fundamental properties are the chances that the cell can move, and we call it migration..." he said. "But, the problem with cancer cells is that the cells migrate in an uncontrollable way."
"Cancer typically starts at a particular site, and that's called a primary tumor, and the cells grow in an uncontrolled fashion and they divide and multiply and this is when we have good success treating cancer," he said. "If we can identify the primary tumor, we can start to remove it or we can treat it and typically the chances of success are high."
"Sometimes, some of the cells in the primary tumor escape the primary tumor. They are able to leave and get into the bloodstream, and then colonize different tissues and establish secondary tumors," Garcia-Mata said. "In my lab, what we study is the mechanisms by which the cells in the primary tumor escape and move to different parts of the body, so that is what we are trying to understand."
As part of his research, Garcia-Mata recently published some of his findings in The Journal of Cell Science (formerly the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science), a peer-reviewed scientific journal in the field of cell biology.
"We discovered ... what we call a pathway, a signaling pathway, it controls the formation of a particular structure in the cell called invadopodia..." Garcia-Mata explained. "Basically, you can explain it as the cell is creating passageways or tunnels through the tissues so they can escape the primary tumor. The tissues are very dense, and the cells, the cancer cells, when they move away from the primary tumor, they cannot travel through tissues unless they find the ways to make tunnels or passageways through it, and invadopodia allows them to do that."