Pathology and Cell Biology
Columbia University Medical Center
Cancer is a systemic disease and with metastasis, cancer cells travel to many of our vital organs such as brain, lung or liver, causes organ dysfunction and death. Cancer also causes debilitating wasting of skeletal muscle, not by traveling to these tissues or growing there, instead, cancers release factors that carry out this function. Cancer patients with this type of muscle wasting have very poor prognosis and die early. We aim to identify those systemic factors that cause muscle loss. Our vision is to simultaneously treat the cancer and also to block the wasting syndrome, which we think together can drastically improve patient quality of life and survival in cancer.
Swarnali Acharyya, PhD, is a cancer biologist in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology & Institute for Cancer Genetics at Columbia University. She is studying mechanisms of metastasis, which is the spreading of cancer to different organs, and accounts for majority of cancer-related deaths. Originally from India, Dr. Acharyya moved to the United States and obtained her PhD from Ohio State University in Biomedical Science. Dr. Acharyya conducted her postdoctoral studies in the area of cancer metastasis at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and was recruited to Columbia University as an Assistant Professor in 2014. Her group has been studying cachexia, a major clinical challenge frequently observed in metastatic cancers. Cachexia involves involuntary loss of muscle and fat and is a debilitating consequence of metastatic disease. Patients with cachexia have poor therapeutic response to anti-cancer therapy and die early from respiratory and cardiac failure. There are no approved treatments for cachexia. Dr. Acharyya’s group has recently identified a mediator of cachexia in metastatic cancers and is working towards developing targeted therapies against cachexia. Since 2014, Dr. Acharyya has received several rewards including the Herbert Irving Scholar Award, American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, DoD Breast Cancer Breakthrough award, DoD Lung Cancer Career Development award, The Irma T. Hirschl Career Scientist Award, the Susan G. Komen Career Catalyst Award and the Schaefer Research Scholar Award.
Prolonging cancer patient survival by targeting both metastasis and cachexia
Over the past few years, the view of cancer has further expanded to include tumor-driven perturbations in distant organs such from the bone marrow to spleen. These new lines of evidence lend support to the emerging view of cancer as a systemic disease. Importantly, this new paradigm has clinical relevance and opportunities for therapeutic intervention. If tumor-promoting systemic processes can be interrupted, or if the systemic environment can be reconditioned, this could lead to an alternative strategy of treating cancer that could prolong patient survival.
“What we are studying in the laboratory is truly interdisciplinary and does not fall under traditional funding. The Prize will allow us to explore an area of cancer biology that is understudied and often overlooked, but has the potential of prolonging cancer patient survival.”
In this regard, our laboratory seeks to understand the biology of metastatic progression integrating the systemic changes induced by tumors. We wish to explore two understudied areas, effects on skeletal muscle wasting by metastatic tumors (cachexia) and effects on tumor-infiltrating B cells. (systemic effects of tumors on the immune system).
“Innovation is choosing the right question in research and then chasing the answer to that question relentlessly until we know everything about it… having the courage to take risks and to venture out into unexplored territories wherever our question takes us… getting out of our comfort zone to learn something new and enjoying the journey…”