CCTR Cancer and Molecular Medicine Ph.D. concentration confirms first graduate

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Lauren Folgosa Cooley comes from a family of doctors, nurses and physical therapists, which is partly why she came to Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 2010 to earn her M.D.

She was happy to follow a familiar familial path, but she also wanted to chart her own route. That’s why she chose to make a significant addition to her medical school curriculum: a Ph.D.

“Why I want to be a doctor has evolved over time,” she said. “It morphed into, ‘I can help people more. I can try to come up with ideas to make better treatments and better ways to help our patients.’”

auren Folgosa Cooley, Ph.D. and Daniel Conrad, Ph.D.
Lauren Folgosa Cooley, Ph.D., with her adviser, Daniel Conrad, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Cooley is the first person to complete the Ph.D. concentration in cancer and molecular medicine at the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research. She is an M.D./Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine.

In March, Cooley solidified her place among those who can and will discover the treatments of tomorrow when she became the first person to complete the Ph.D. concentration in cancer and molecular medicine at the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

The CaMM concentration, one of two at the CCTR, is designed to train students in the research skills required to perform translational research in cancer and molecular medicine. Translational research focuses on multidisciplinary collaboration that accelerates laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients.

Students from the VCU School of Medicine who choose to pursue a Ph.D. complete two years of medical school, then complete a Ph.D. program before finishing the remainder of medical school.

“What makes me excited [about translational science and the CaMM program] is that you actually do something that could one day make a difference,” Cooley said. “There are still many diseases that don’t have proper treatment options and once you’re diagnosed there’s really nothing that people can do. So if we can change that and actually give people hope and options, that’s the reason I continue and still want to pursue doing this.”

Cooley’s research has involved two projects. The first examined the ratio of two proteases (ADAM 10 and ADAM 17) on the B cells in mouse models and human patients. It asked whether that ratio could predict susceptibility to certain disease states such as allergy.

“Lauren’s work helps us understand how these ADAM proteases are involved in B lymphocyte development and function,” said Daniel Conrad, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Cooley’s adviser. “Her work was translational in that similar activities were also seen in the B cells from allergic patient indicating a critical role in allergic diseases.”

The second project looked at a protein that is most notably studied in sperm motility. It examined how that protein could affect immune cells and their ability to communicate with one another. Working with Zhibing Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine, interim vice president for health sciences and CEO of the VCU Health System, Cooley showed the protein was important in several immunological applications.

The finding that this sperm-associated antigen plays a critical role in what’s known as the immunological synapse might be the basis for a grant next year that will try to understand how it is further important for immune system function.

Cooley’s three years in the CaMM program have resulted in three first-author papers and maybe a fourth, Conrad said. “Lauren is a very hard worker, and to get as much work done as she did in three years is phenomenal.”

He also said there is no way to overemphasize the importance of the path Cooley has chosen.

“We have basic research scientists and we have physicians, but what is needed is more physician-scientists,” he said. “What the M.D./Ph.D. program does is gives students access to Ph.D.-level basic research and clinical research so they can go on to work as a physician-scientist. It’s in these programs that they get excited about research.”

Cooley is enthusiastic as she prepares for a career of not just treating people with diseases, but also finding new ways to fight those diseases. As she moves back to working on her M.D., the route she has charted is one many future students will follow. Conrad expects his next M.D./Ph.D. student — already scheduled to begin in a few months — to pick up right where Cooley is leaving off.