UH Med Now

Having witnessed cancer’s toll in her own family makes this researcher’s fight for better cancer detection personal

Date: December 9th, 2019 in Faculty, JABSOM News, Research    Print or PDF

Dr. Melissa Agsalda-Garcia

Pictured: Dr. Melissa Agsalda-Garcia of the Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS at JABSOM. Deborah Manog Dimaya photo.

“Witnessing what it (cancer) did to my parents creates a personal connection to my work and motivates my research,” said Dr. Melissa Agsalda-Garcia.

By Kalpana J. Kallianpur, PhD, for the Office of the Associate Dean for Research

Researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi–Mānoa (UHM) are aiming to improve screening techniques for anal cancer and dysplasia (a pre-cancerous condition) in HIV+ patients in Hawaii. A potentially chronic but often asymptomatic disease, anal dysplasia/cancer disproportionately affects Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Asians in Hawaiʻi. Due to the stigma surrounding HIV disease, these individuals are less likely than others to be screened, creating a disparity in access to anal cancer/dysplasia screening.

Dr. Melissa Agsalda-Garcia is a research specialist in the Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). She was initially drawn to biomedical science through personal experience. Her father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin T-cell lymphoma when she graduated from college, and he died while she was starting graduate school. She returned to Hawaiʻi to live near her mother, who passed away two years ago from colon cancer, further propelling her research.

“Witnessing what it (cancer) did to my parents creates a personal connection to my work and motivates my research,” Agsalda-Garcia said.

Today, Dr. Agsalda-Garcia is a member of Dr. Bruce Shiramizu’s laboratory. Together, they are working to identify and test a novel set of biomarkers for low-grade anal dysplasia that will increase access to screening and perhaps lead to development of an improved screening tool. Anal cancer is generally diagnosed by high-resolution anoscopy (HRA), an invasive procedure. Dr. Agsalda-Garcia and her collaborators are interested in finding out whether biomarkers can help distinguish lower-risk from higher-risk dysplasia to prevent HRA. Approximately, 40% of individuals at risk for this type of cancer may be spared the procedure if a more efficient screening modality becomes available.

Dr. Agsalda-Garcia received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Cell and Molecular Biology from Tulane University and a PhD in Biomedical Sciences from UHM. In addition to her current work in anal dysplasia/cancer, Agsalda-Garcia is collaborating with Dr. Anupam Misra to use Raman spectroscopy on cancer specimens. Based on their biological differences from normal tissue, spectroscopy fingerprints allow for identification of a unique biological signature.

Agsalda-Garcia finds excitement in communicating her results to research assistants, students, collaborators, mentors and others. “We often start out not really knowing what results to expect,” she said. The research findings add to the understanding of a disease or condition, eventually leading to better methods of diagnosis and treatment. In the future, Agsalda-Garcia intends to expand her research capabilities and perhaps explore other research opportunities that will utilize her knowledge and expertise.

Agsalda-Garcia grew up in Hawaiʻi and graduated from Mililani High School. She enjoys spending her free time with her family, as well as reading and practicing yoga.

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