Shortly after she arrived at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis five years ago for her post-doctoral work, Martina Molgora, Ph.D., and her colleagues made a surprising discovery: An immune receptor known to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease is also prevalent in several types of cancer, including gastric cancer. Now she has an opportunity to learn more about the role of that receptor, called TREM2, in gastric cancer, thanks to a $300,000 research grant she has won from the Gastric Cancer Foundation and American Gastroenterology Association.
Molgora is the fourth recipient of The AGA–Gastric Cancer Foundation Ben Feinstein Memorial Research Scholar Award in Gastric Cancer, which provides $100,000 per year for three years to young scientists in the field of gastric and esophageal cancer research.
“I’m truly honored to receive this grant and pursue the opportunity it offers,” says Molgora, a researcher and instructor of pathology and immunology. “It’s important to find new therapies for gastric cancer, and I believe TREM2 might be a promising therapeutic target.”
Molgora, who is from Milan, received her Ph.D. in immunology and immunopathology from Humanitas Research Hospital in Italy. She focused primarily on the role of natural killer (NK) cells in cancer. During her post-doc work at Washington University, she became interested in tumor-associated macrophages, which are immune cells that are prevalent in tumors.
TREM2 has been studied extensively in neurodegenerative diseases, but it wasn’t thought to be significant in cancer until next-generation cell-sequencing technologies revealed a possible role for the receptor in tumor growth a few years ago. Molgora led studies that demonstrated that blocking or deleting TREM2 could slow tumor growth.
Armed with the funding from the Research Scholar Award, Molgora plans to investigate the role of TREM2 in gastric cancer tumor-associated macrophages. She will use two mouse models, as well as tumor samples from gastric cancer patients who are treated at Washington University. To determine the impact of modulating TREM2 in tumors, she will test several antibodies that target TREM2, both as solo therapies and in combination PD-1 inhibitors, which are used in the treatment of several tumor types to boost the immune response to cancer. She also hopes to define how modulating TREM2 affects the tumor microenvironment.
Including samples from gastric cancer patients will be critical for understanding the relevance of detecting and targeting TREM2 in gastric cancer, Molgora says. “Next-generation techniques will allow us to study the activity of TREM2-positive macrophages in tissue and possibly correlate that activity with clinical parameters, such as how a patient responds to therapy and how the disease progresses,” she says.
When she’s not in the lab, Molgora keeps busy as a new mom of a baby boy. She is an avid cook and animal lover who is also a parent to two dogs.
Molgora says applying for the Research Scholar Award was particularly meaningful, as a close friend of her family passed away from gastric cancer while she was writing the grant.
“I will put all my effort into this research, and I hope it will lead to some new observations that will improve the selection of treatments for patients.”