Richard De La Rosa’s earliest science project was creating a battery out of a potato for his 3rd grade class.
“I cut a potato in half, put a nail on both ends and a penny. Then I tied a copper wire around the nails in order for the electrons to move through the system,” he said. “It worked pretty well.”
In high school, he continued to pursue his interest in science by taking AP classes and serving as a judge at local science fairs.
“I was always interested in understanding how things work and why they work the way they do. In high school, I knew I wanted to be in science but had no idea what research was until I was in college.” he said.
De La Rosa enrolled at New Mexico State University and joined the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program. The program helped him navigate how to get involved in research and see science as a career.
During this time, he also interned at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle where his research focused on molecular changes during aging. Although this internship solidified his interest in pursuing a doctorate degree in Biomedical science, he enrolled in a one-year post baccalaureate program at the University of Missouri to gain more experience.
While attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, De La Rosa met Dr. Nicquet Blake, Associate Dean of Admissions and principal investigator of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) grant-funded program, who encouraged him to apply.
“When I came to visit during the interview process, it was amazing to see the camaraderie among the graduate students” he said. “I could tell the faculty and student interactions were also genuine.”
De La Rosa was accepted and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Cell Biology, Genetics, and Molecular discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. He is working in the lab of Dr. Kexin Xu on a project that focuses on the development of drug resistance in castrate resistant prostate cancer (CRPC), the most lethal form of prostate cancer.
“Five-year survival rate drops to 29 percent when patients reach this stage of the disease. My project focuses on how patients develop resistance to a drug called enzalutamide.
Enzalutamide is a recently developed drug that was shown to increase overall survival of CRPC patients by inhibiting the androgen receptor (AR) activity, but nearly 100 percent of patients developed resistance to the drug.
“The tumors eventually stop responding to the drug and begin to grow again,” he said. “It has been reported that resistance occurs as early on as 18 to 24 months after treatment.”
According to studies, there were suggestions that the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) is activated to bypass AR signaling and therefore overcome the inhibitory effect of enzalutamide on AR activity. It’s been suggested that GR is upregulated in both CRPC patient samples and preclinical models, so we were interested to see how GR-mediated resistance of enzalutamide is occurring in patients.
“We’ve identified a potential target to overcome this resistance. Bromodomain Containing (BRD) proteins have been shown to play a role in regulating gene expression that leads to prostate cancer progression and therapeutic resistance,” he said.
So far, he has found that ATAD2, a BRD protein, is elevated in GR-overexpressing cell models that are refractory to enzalutamide treatment.
“ATAD2 has been shown to regulate the chromatin structure in prostate cancer models and plays a role in gene expression,” he said. “So, for patients with enzalutamide-resistant CRPC that overexpresses GR, if we can inhibit the function of ATAD2, then we can potentially disrupt the activity of GR in activating the genes that are contributing to the resistant phenotypes in prostate cancer, so patients could continue to take the Enzalutamide drug without developing resistance.”
De La Rosa hopes that his research will improve lives for prostate cancer patients.
“It’s not a replacement for Enzalutamide, but this could help with increasing overall survival of CRPC patients, which represents a clinical challenge in prostate cancer” he said.
Recently, he received a Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) fellowship to fund the project.
“I was so excited,” he said. “It’s such an honor to receive such a fellowship and to learn that they saw potential in my project and saw potential in me as a researcher.”
Outside of the lab, he is an active member of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science UT Health San Antonio chapter.
“Being in these organizations is a great way to get involved with the community. For example, we volunteered with the Boys and Girls Club and Café College to get younger students interested in science,” he said. “It was really cool because I remember being at that age and fascinated by different science experiments.”
When he’s not at UT Health San Antonio, De La Rosa likes to golf.
“It’s relaxing and a great way to reset your mind. It’s always nice to get outside and enjoy the game” he said.