Molecular and Cellular Oncology Program

The Molecular and Cellular Oncology Program (MCO) organizes an outstanding group of researchers whose work provides insights into gene expression regulation and its deregulation in cancer, the cellular response to genomic insults, the molecular structure of cancer-relevant proteins, and new signaling processes driving tumor growth. 

Our researchers collaborate with other programs to translate their basic discoveries into better tools for cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

We develop these novel technologies and approaches: 

  • Synthetic lethal shRNA screens in human cells to identify pathways conferring resistance to targeted therapies
  • New phospho-proteomics approaches to elucidate oncogenic protein kinase signaling pathways
  • Cutting-edge metabolomics approaches to uncover weaknesses in cancer cells that can be exploited to therapeutic advantage 
  • Advanced crystallographic, electron microscopy, and NMR studies of protein structure

Scientific Goals:

Research in the MCO program is directed toward elucidating fundamental biological processes in cancer biology and translating these basic discoveries into better tools for cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment through collaborative research with other CU Cancer Center programs.

Focus Groups

Maintenance of Genomic Integrity - Investigators work on genomic re-arrangements and retro-transposition; DNA replication, repair, and the DNA damage cell cycle checkpoint; mutagenesis and the response to ionizing irradiation, telomerase, and DNA end-repair.  

Gene Expression and Biomarkers - Investigators work on specification of cell fates; nuclear acceptors of signaling and environmental pathways; fundamental mechanisms of transcriptional regulation; the interplay between transcription and RNA processing, cancer survival pathways; and the regulation of protein synthesis and proteomic identification of cancer biomarkers that result from altered gene expression. 

Cancer Structural Biology - Investigators delineate the molecular structure of RNA, DNA-binding proteins, signaling molecules, and oligopeptides using biophysical techniques, cryo-EM, NMR, and X-ray crystallography.

Programmatic Goals:

  • Promote career development for junior members and trainees
  • Maintain a diverse, equitable, and inclusive climate for all members
  • Stimulate inter- and intra- program collaborations 
  • Facilitate access to new technologies and resources 
  • Create forums for scientific exchange and discussion 
  • Discover basic cancer processes that can be collaboratively translated to the clinic
  • Generate improved understanding and treatment of cancer types relevant to Colorado populations

Incorporating Diversity and Equity into Basic Cancer Research

The 2021 Molecular and Cellular Oncology (MCO) annual retreat focused on how researchers who are studying molecular mechanisms in cancer could incorporate the issues of high relevance to the catchment area and health disparities that are driven by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The keynote speaker, Anne-Kathrin Eisfeld, MD, from Ohio State University, presented on racial and socioeconomic disparities in survival of adult AML patients. The retreat also featured Chris Gignoux, PhD, presenting about the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine biobank, Evelinn Borrayo, PhD, presenting on disparities in cancer patients in Colorado, Adam Green, MD, presented his work on disparities in CNS cancer patients in the US and CO, and Sean Davis, MD, PhD, presented related Campus Resources. Alexis Zukowski, a postdoc trainee in an MCO lab, discussed how she is customizing a new chromatin-based assay for low-cost biomarker detection to make it more applicable to underserved populations.

Following the presentations was a discussion session with our panel of experts. This brainstorming session produced many good ideas for how MCO can support researchers who want to incorporate race/ethnicity information into their work with bio-samples such as cell lines. One of the most insightful comments was from Sean Davis, MD, PhD, who told us that race/ethnicity information could be inferred from public (GEO) ChIP seq or RNAseq datasets.

MCO has compiled some resources to encourage Cancer Center members to consider diversity and disparity when designing their experiments. We are also spearheading efforts to provide funds for Cancer Center members to gather ancestry information of their biologic resources, so stay tuned for funding announcements!

Molecular and Cellular Oncology Leadership

Patricia Ernst, PhD

Patricia Ernst, PhD

Program Co-Leader

Dr. Ernst is the Co-Leader for Molecular and Cellular Oncology (MCO) Program. She is a Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Heme/Onc/BMT section. Her research program focuses on childhood leukemia, normal hematopoiesis and epigenetic factors regulating these processes. She has been continuously funded for over 17 years by grants from NIDDK, NHLBI, NIAID, OD and NCI. In addition to her role as program co-leader, Dr. Ernst serves as Associate co-Director of the Medical Scientist Training Program for the University of Colorado and recently rotated out of the Presidency of the International Society for Experimental Hematology. She serves on editorial boards of Blood, Journal of Experimental Medicine and Frontiers in Immunology. As program co-leader, Dr. Ernst serves as the site leader for the University of Colorado Anschutz Campus and a liaison for training programs at the University of Colorado Denver. Together with MCO co-leader Dr. Su she works to coordinate all aspects of MCO planning, development, execution, and evaluation.

Tin Tin Su, PhD

Tin Tin Su, PhD

Program Co-Leader

Dr. Su is the Co-Leader for Molecular and Cellular Oncology (MCO) Program.  She is a Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is an experienced investigator in the field of radiation biology of Drosophila and human cancer models. She is currently the PI of R35GM130374 and is one of two PIs for the NCI SBIR phase II contract 75N910196C00038.  In addition to her role as program co-leader, Dr. Su serves as the Director of Graduate Student Affairs in her home department. She is the current President of the Drosophila Board and serves as the chair of NIH CSRS Study Section. She was appointed as program co-leader for MCO in 2018.  As program co-leader, Dr. Su serves as the site leader for the University of Colorado Boulder Campus and a liaison for the Colorado State University and works closely with MCO co-leader Dr. Ernst to coordinate all aspects of MCO planning, development, execution, and evaluation.