Mizzou researcher Diana Gil Pagés (gesturing) and four of team members discuss their work in their NextGen Precision Health building lab.

Associate Professor Diana Gil Pagés (gesturing) works with a six-person team in her laboratory at the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building. Pictured, left to right, are Research Specialist Nhan Vu and microbiology doctoral candidates Onyekach (Juliet) Okpasuo, Liangyu Wang and Hein Huynh.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 2 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, including about 39,000 in Missouri. The good news is that researchers like Diana Gil Pagés, an investigator in the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building at the University of Missouri, are developing promising new treatments personalized for patients.

Gil Pagés and her team are focused on harnessing the power of a person’s immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells. This individualized health care approach, called precision medicine, is a welcome change for cancer patients exposed to less-targeted conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.

One of the reasons Gil Pagés joined Mizzou’s faculty in September 2017, was for the many interdisciplinary opportunities afforded by her position as associate professor of surgery and molecular microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine and of bioengineering in the College of Engineering. 

“Since I was a teenager, I aimed to contribute to find a cure for cancer,” Gil Pagés says. “This job is allowing me to establish new collaborations to advance my research in cancer immunotherapies into relevant preclinical animal models with the long-term goal of developing new treatments for cancer patients.”

Diana Gil Pages stands outside the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building

Diana Gil Pagés stands outside the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building. 

What is your current research focus?

I'm developing a new anti-cancer immunotherapy targeting the immune system. We target a type of immune cell called T-cell lymphocyte. T-cell lymphocytes have different functions. One major function that could be useful against cancer is cytotoxicity, which means that these T cells can kill other cells.  So we are targeting these cytotoxic T cells with a specific antibody that recognizes special features that T cells have that distinguish them from any other cell in the body. With these antibodies that bind specifically to the T cells, we can make the cytotoxic T cells more effective to recognize and kill malignant cells.

What do you enjoy most about working with other researchers?

In my lab, I mentor and work directly with a postdoctoral fellow, four doctoral candidates and a research technologist. I also collaborate with countless principal investigators at MU and at other institutions, all of which makes my research program much stronger.

My favorite part is building efficient teams that include people with different strengths and talents. It is so satisfying to see how much more progress is made when people work together and to experience the wonder when achieving goals you knew were out of your own limited reach.

Last semester, you received a Research Council Grant. How do you plan to use it? 

Research Council Grants are a smart investment that the university does for the research community. It’s great that there is this funding mechanism for seed projects. With this money, we will be able to generate some initial observations and preliminary data that will help us apply for more competitive extramural funding from the National Institutes of Health. More specifically, we will make a new hybrid animal model for therapeutics. We are implanting samples from dogs with osteosarcoma cancer in avatar mice, which will allow us to test new drugs to help dog immune cells destroy cancer. Given the similarities between dogs and humans, what we learn in models like these will help dogs as well as humans. 

Do you have an example of how your work has made a positive impact?

I am very proud of how my Ph.D. students create with me the cancer models we use in the lab to learn the best ways to weaponize the immune system against cancer. They cultivate drive and grit, independent thinking and problem-solving skills that could take them anywhere once they graduate. So I think if everything else fails, I am for sure impacting the community by educating the next generation to be rational and resolutive. Long-term, of course, we hope our research will improve the prognosis of cancer and the quality of life for patients. But we are not there yet.

What advice do you have for early career faculty?

Develop a thick skin and courage. An impactful ride is always bumpy, no pun intended.