Cracking the microbiome-cancer connection: Meet Wadie D. Mahauad-Fernandez, PhD, postdoctoral oncological research fellow

The cutting edge of cancer research is finding connections between tumor growth and the composition of gut microbiomes. Wadie D. Mahauad-Fernandez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral oncology fellow at Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif. He and his team are exploring how delicate interplay of chemicals produced by gut flora impact cancer and vice versa.

How did you first get interested in science and microbiome research?

I first became interested in science when I received a small microscope toy as a child. I remember picking up dirt and small insects to look at them. Then, in high school I leaned towards Biology,  as I loved the complexity but also the beauty of how things in our body work. My passion for microbiome research started as an undergraduate student, at Augustana University (SD), studying the symbiotic relationships of oral bacteria. When I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, on top of my research on the role of an antiviral factor in breast cancer, I had the privilege of working in several virology research projects and served as a teaching assistant for undergraduate microbiology classes. Currently, I’m thankful for being able to continue my microbiome research evaluating the role of gut microbiota in cancer development while in Stanford University.

Can you tell us a little about your project?

My proposal entailed comprehensively mapping the molecular signaling networks between  the gut microbiota and cancer cell pathways that affect growth and survival of oncogene-addicted tumors. In other words, we are defining the role of the gut microbiota in the growth of oncogene- addicted cancers.
This is based on data showing that microbiome ablation results in reduced tumor growth in oncogene-addicted cancers, due to changes in autonomous pathways. I proposed 1) to identify bacterial species that play a causal role in regulating the expression of genes involved in cell growth; 2) to analyze changes in bacterial gene expression that result from tumor growth; 3) to identify cancer-driving genes altered by microbiome depletion; and 4) to perform computational analyses to identify gut microbial species associated with transcriptional changes of key genes involved in tumor growth.

What happens on a typical day for you in the lab?

I start my day with in vitro experiments in the tissue culture hood, then my day continues with in vivo experiments in mice and with wet bench experiments. At the end of the day, I focus my time on data analysis and generation of new experimental ideas. These activities are complemented by several meetings with other fellows and collaborators, training and mentoring undergraduate students, and writing manuscripts and grant proposals.

What interesting or surprising things have you found in the course of your research?

I was very intrigued by the fact that changes in gut microbiota composition can alter cell behavior. Correspondingly, I find the idea of altering gut microbiota to better treat and diagnose cancers in  a potentially less invasive way than current approaches interesting. This is similar to immunotherapy where, in some cases, we exploit  our own immune system to attack the cancer.   I foresee that harnessing the functions of the gut microbiota will have therapeutic benefits against cancer. I find it remarkable that we can change the outcome of a complex disease such as cancer by modifying bacterial populations in our gastrointestinal tract.

What kind of microbiome research do you perform and how does it impact health and disease or the environment? Where do you see this heading in the next five years?

I focus on cancer research and my goal is to define the role of the gut microbiota in the growth of oncogene addicted cancers. Understanding the role of the microbiome in cancer can result in the development of better therapeutic strategies, non-invasive diagnostic tools, and in the development of adjuvant factors that can be used to enhance current anti-cancer treatments. I foresee my research resulting in the identification of specific bacteria species and specific metabolites that affect cancer cell intrinsic pathways. I believe that we can harvest  the functions of the gut microbiota therapeutically to treat cancers for which treatments are limited or nonexistent.

What are your hobbies?

Outside the lab I enjoy barbequing, hiking around the northern California area, going out with friends, as well as playing sports including soccer and basketball. I am a big sports fan, so a good portion of my time is devoted to watching football, soccer, and basketball games. Pretty much any sport that is played with a ball (except baseball).

What are the major challenges you face in your research with regards to sample collection, nucleic acid isolation and data analysis?

One of our major challenge is scalability, the ability to process and analyze several samples at  the same time. Another challenge that we face is using newer software and programs to be able to put together large amounts of data in one network to identify new associations between control and treated groups. In my case, the challenge lies in associating specific bacterial species and cancer outcomes. Therefore, fostering new collaborations becomes vital in our turf since we are experts in a specific field but cannot succeed unless we complement our knowledge with that of scientists in other fields of study.

Which MO BIO or QIAGEN products do you use/have you used in the past and what did you like about the products?

We routinely use several kits from Qiagen (DNeasy PowerSoil Pro Kit, DNeasy PowerSoil Pro QIAcube HT Kit) for the isolation of RNA and DNA from cells, tissues, and stool samples. I love how user-friendly these kits are and the reliability and reproducibility of the end materials they yield.