Ashley Ferguson will study at the University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council Cancer Unit with a Rotary Global Grant next year.
“Ferguson is researching how cancer cells survive nutritional deprivation and how that is linked to the cell’s mitochondria.
“The thing that unites all cancers is that the cells composing them are dividing too fast,” she said. “Sometimes, a tumor can grow so fast that it outgrows its nutrient source. Yet cancer cells are still able to survive without adequate nutrients. It turns out that a cancer cell’s mitochondria may be at the heart of this survival.”
Mitochondria, often portrayed in textbooks as static, bean-shaped organelles, exist in cells as dynamic networks, constantly undergoing division and fusion. Ferguson thinks the dynamic behavior of the mitochondria likely contributes to the ability of a cancer cell to survive nutrient deprivation.
“At UVA, I have tried to understand how a protein involved in mitochondrial dynamics, RalA, might also help a cancer cell to survive nutrient deprivation,” she said. “In the Frezza lab in Cambridge, I will continue working on cancer metabolism. There, I will focus on a protein that could unite two potential causes of a cancer cell’s increased growth: DNA damage and changes to the way a cancer cell uptakes and uses energy.”
Ferguson’s interest in cancer metabolism led her to work in the laboratory of David Kashatus, an assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology.
“Ashley is a promising young scientist who is well-deserving of the Rotary Scholarship,” Kashatus said. “Over the past several years as a student in my lab, she has exhibited a passion for science and an intellectual curiosity that have impressed the faculty and students in our department. Winning this scholarship is a testament to her work ethic and her talent, and I am very excited to see what she does with this opportunity at Cambridge.”” From UVA Today