An assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics, Mello is a cancer biologist who trained at Stanford University in California. He lives for those “aha” intellectual moments in the lab. Whether he’s trying to understand gene changes or DNA damage essential for cancer, he is constantly on the lookout for ways to predict how the disease arises and how it will progress.
But it was a series of personal eureka moments that gave his research real purpose. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 while Mello was completing post-doctoral studies in his native Brazil. That was 13 years ago, and she is doing well, but “it moved me a lot and drove me to understand what’s going on.” Later, his supervisor at Stanford had lost a close family member to pancreatic cancer, and around the same time, Mello had discovered some important non-coding RNA genes involved in that dismal disease. As a result, his supervisor created a special project for him, and to this day, he’s digging into how a normal cell turns into a cancer cell. The goal is to develop a blood test for pancreatic cancer that would expose early biomarkers. To get there quickly, he’s using the most modern laboratory techniques to study known cancer genes such as KRAS, which promotes tumors, and p53, which suppresses tumors — and what happens when they’re both mutated.
He’s also studying ways to boost p53 to prevent cancer in people who’ve suffered from pancreatitis and have a 100-fold increase in cancer risk. “Having the power to predict who’s at risk and who is not,” Mello says, “is so important.”