Antonino B. D'Assoro, M.D., Ph.D.

Photo of Antonino D'Assoro, M.D., Ph.D.

"At Mayo, I learned to take a team approach to translational research … it's a unique environment where I feel I can excel."

Bioinformatics consulting from the CTSA leads to career development funding and new opportunities

Antonino B. D'Assoro, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says he has always been fascinated by research. While in medical school at the University of Catania in Sicily, Dr. D'Assoro became involved in a molecular oncology research lab, studying the role of estrogens in breast cancer cell proliferation and apoptosis under the mentorship of Professor Franca Stivala, M.D.

Now, over a decade later and with support from his Mayo mentorship team, he hopes to establish a translational research-focused breast cancer program at Mayo Clinic.

Bioinformatics support from the Mayo Clinic Center for Translational Science Activities (CTSA) last year enabled Dr. D'Assoro to generate enough preliminary data to apply for — and be awarded — competitive bridge funding from Mayo to study the role of Aurora-A kinase in the development of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and breast cancer metastasis. This three-year early career development award supports investigators as they transition from research training to obtaining independent, extramural funding. Dr. D'Assoro's award provides over $450,000 to cover his effort, plus additional funding to hire a research technologist to work on his project.

A bioinformatics jumpstart

In the summer of 2008, Dr. D'Assoro had heaps of genomic data — and little idea how to make sense of it. This dilemma brought him to the CTSA's bioinformatics software training classes, taught by Alex Leontovich, Ph.D., where he learned to use Ingenuity software to interpret and analyze his data. After a few classes, Drs. D'Assoro and Leontovich began working one-on-one together; the two now have an established collaboration.

In addition to securing Dr. D'Assoro three years of Mayo bridge funding, their work together has also resulted in the submission of two manuscripts — something Dr. D'Assoro says is directly attributable to the support he's received from Dr. Leontovich and the CTSA.

"Without Dr. Leontovich's help, we wouldn't have gotten far. We would've had trouble getting the information we wanted," Dr. D'Assoro says. "We've acquired a lot of know-how in global genome analysis during our time working with Alex."

"Genomic data, by itself, are not very useful," Dr. D'Assoro continues. "It's the bioinformatics analysis, and having a clear understanding of your final goal, that really counts. For example, out of a pool of 20,000 genes, we've been able to pinpoint about a dozen that have implications for the development of breast cancer recurrence and metastasis."

Supportive mentoring

Guiding Dr. D'Assoro during the course of his early career development award is a multidisciplinary mentorship team of Mayo investigators — Jeffrey Salisbury, Ph.D. (in whose lab Dr. D'Assoro's research activity is based); James Ingle, M.D.; and Eva Galanis, M.D.

Dr. Salisbury, a molecular and cell biologist, supports Dr. D'Assoro's main interest, basic science breast cancer research — specifically, the molecular mechanisms responsible for the development of phenotypic heterogeneity, chemo-endocrine resistance and tumor progression in breast cancer. Drs. Ingle and Galanis — both oncologists and senior Mayo investigators — bring a clinical and translational perspective to Dr. D'Assoro's work and help him turn his findings into preclinical models, something he finds extremely important.

"At Mayo, I learned to take a team approach to translational research, and my mentors themselves do an outstanding job of applying basic research to patient care," says Dr. D'Assoro. "It's a unique environment where I feel I can excel."

What's next?

Dr. D'Assoro's career development award from Mayo will allow him more time to gather data to support two new grant applications — a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grant and a United States Department of Defense grant. Obtaining extramural funding is important for investigators living on bridge funding, as it can open the door to a long-term faculty appointment and an independent lab.

Though he has a medical degree, Dr. D'Assoro sees himself staying fully focused on research for the time being.

"I love the dynamic nature of research, especially the breast cancer research we're doing. The knowledge generated from our research studies will not only help to elucidate the molecular mechanisms leading to breast cancer progression, but will also help to develop molecular therapeutic strategies tailored for patients with breast tumors resistant to conventional anti-cancer drugs," he explains.

"There's such a high incidence of breast cancer in Western countries, and I hope we can play a role in developing new treatments that will improve the overall survival of breast cancer patients," he says.

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