DVIDS – News – USU Center is “Hidden Gem” for gynecological cancer treatment and research


For Air Force Col. (Dr.) Yovanni Casablanca, it was the honor of a lifetime to be the third director and principal investigator at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) Gynecologic Cancer Center of Excellence (GYN-CoE). . Since graduating from USU in 2002, her mission has been to spread the word about the incredible work of the GYN-CoE.

In 2017, following residency and fellowship training and clinical assignments, Casablanca returned to USU as Associate Professor of Gynecologic Surgery and Obstetrics, a position she still holds alongside her role as Head of the GYN-CoE.

“I could never have imagined something like this when I started my career in my early twenties,” Casablanca marvels.

Although the GYN-CoE is a USU center, its offices are at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; However, the center’s core laboratory, the Women’s Health Integrated Research Center (WHIRC), is located at the Inova Health System in Northern Virginia, along with additional educational elements of the National Capital Consortium Fellowship in Gynecologic Oncology.

Casablanca describes the GYN-CoE as a “hidden gem” at USU, but emphasizes that their work is anything but hidden.

“Our science speaks for itself. We have had national and international success in presenting our scientific work, and the GYN-CoE is very well publicized. It has also established itself as a broad asset for the Ministry of Defense and USU.”

Gynecologic cancer is an umbrella term for seven different types of cancer that occur in the reproductive system of women, including ovarian cancer, vaginal cancer, cervical cancer, uterine/endometrial cancer, vulvar cancer, primary peritoneal cancer, and trophoblastic gestational disease. With approximately 15-20% of the US military and two million of veterans made up of women, treating gynecologic disorders is a priority for the Casablanca team at the GYN-CoE. Your not-so-secret weapon? Your central laboratory, the WHIRC.

The GYN-CoE WHIRC consists of a diverse research team of faculty-level scientists, engineers, and computer scientists working to identify molecular alterations in gynecological cancers and to develop novel strategies for the prevention, early detection, and treatment of gynecological diseases.

The WHIRC faculty includes retired Col. Larry Maxwell, who has served as a USU faculty member in support of these programs both in uniform and as a civilian; Thomas Conrads, a recognized biochemist and proteomics expert, who was recruited to start the WHIRC in 2011 as Chief Scientific Officer.

Over time, the skills of the GYN-CoE have become more sophisticated, resulting in numerous national and international collaborations with the world’s leading research laboratories studying gynecological tumors. In addition, the center has broadened its focus from purely studying cancers in the development of novel therapeutic strategies to studying precancerous gynecological diseases in the development of prevention strategies, as well as benign gynecological tumors to improve diagnostic approaches.

But that’s not all, adds Casablanca.

“We also support cross-cancer investigations such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and kidney cancer.”

She further states that the GYN-CoE is a phenomenal resource for USU studies across a wide range of diseases due to the advanced skills and knowledge of their faculty and facilities.

“The lab and its scientists have developed very novel and robust techniques in two main areas: proteomics and laser capture microdissection,” explains Casablanca. “Proteomics is the study of how the cell’s biological effectors, as well as proteins and protein interactions, can lead to downstream disease, and laser capture microdissection describes a technique that isolates microscopic compartments within tissues for precise and specific analysis of the.” perform microenvironment.”

The GYN-CoE experts evaluate the proteomic composition and analysis of samples from cancer patients and compare them with normal samples. The center’s specialists are expanding their reach by using their proteomics experts to collaborate with other cancer studies.

“Dr. Clifton Dalgard, Director of the Center for Military Precision Health (CMPH) and Associate Professor at USU’s School of Medicine, is also one of our key collaborators,” adds Casablanca – and DNA/RNA analyses.”

GYN-CoE and CMPH work hand in hand in their research to develop a deeper understanding of what is happening during different analyses. Much more information and insight into these processes is gained when diseases are viewed in different ways.

GYN-CoE also works with the Joint Pathology Center (JPC) in Silver Spring, MD, led by Director Col. Joel Moncur. The JPC houses thousands upon thousands of specimens from hundreds of years ago, including specimens from patients during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

In cooperation with the JPC, the GYN-CoE has the opportunity to examine patients affected by pandemics, for example.

“We did this during COVID,” says Casablanca, “and also tried to understand at the proteomic level and through proteomic support what happens to patients dying of COVID.”

As such, the GYN-CoE’s wide-ranging skills with proteomics are becoming more recognized and better known, although Casablanca admits she encountered people on campus who were unaware that USU had a proteomics center of excellence.

“We want people to know that we are part of the university and that we are working with scientists and researchers to help them make their work more meaningful by adding this proteomic analysis to everything they do.”

Talking about the other key area she touched on, Casablanca explains that another unique feature of the GYN-CoE is the laser capture microdissection it uses for tissue samples.

As previously described, laser capture microdissection describes a technique that isolates microscopic compartments within tissues to perform precise and specific analyzes of the microenvironment. To achieve these analyses, a microscopic slide is made by slicing it very thinly. The laser then selects specific parts of the tissue on the slide that contain cancer cells. Through this process, selective tissue analysis of DNA, RNA, and proteins can be performed.

This laser detection capability has been studied for use in breast cancer, kidney cancer, and several other types of cancer. It is also being evaluated for use in other diseases, even benign conditions affecting the military population and women who do not have cancer.

In the end, Casablanca expresses that the GYN-CoE has an incredible amount to offer and that the opportunity to collaborate boils down to awareness and recognition of the value of the centre.

The GYN-CoE, she explains, gives the USU community the opportunity to incorporate laser capture microdissection and proteomics into their research studies, and with the center’s greater visibility, she is optimistic that there will be many great collaborations.

“The Gynecologic Cancer Center program has its own heart and soul,” concludes Casablanca. “We have such a great team here. Hopefully, with more collaborations, publications and awareness, the GYN-CoE will be recognized as one of the flagship centers at USU.”

Date of recording: 08/18/2022
Release Date: 18.08.2022 13:02
Story ID: 427521

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