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Medical Researcher Earns Ph.D., Stays At UCF To Continue Finding Cancer Cure   

Ana Carr’s passion is helping people with cancer. She lost her grandfather to the disease, volunteered at a pediatric oncology hospital in her native Brazil as a teenager, and is currently working to find a cure for a condition that kills 8.8 million people worldwide each year.

“We all know somebody, or have a family member that went through some form of treatment, or passed away due to cancer,” she said. “It’s really a horrible disease.”

Saturday, Carr will graduate with her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the UCF College of Medicine. She has juggled graduate studies as a single mother raising two small children who call her “Doctor Mommy.” Her research focus: finding ways to stop metastatic cancer – cells that spread from their original tumor and invade other parts of the body like the lungs, bones and brain. She will be hooded at graduation by her teacher and mentor, Dr. Annette Khaled, head of the UCF College of Medicine’s Cancer Research Division.

Khaled’s lab discovered the peptide CT20 in 2012, which kills metastatic cells by disrupting the folding mechanism inside cancer cells, mediated by a molecular structure called a chaperonin. If the inner workings of the cell can’t fold into three-dimensional units, the cell dies. That discovery helped Dr. Khaled’s lab earn almost $900,000 in grant funding from the national Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF).  Proceeds from today’s AutoNation Cure Bowl support the foundation. For her doctoral dissertation, Carr discovered that the peptide also appears to stop metastatic small-cell lung cancer. Based on her graduate work, Carr earned a UCF Preeminent Postdoctoral Program (P3) fellowship and will continue her career in Khaled’s lab.

“She’s driven, methodical and positive,” Carr said of Khaled. “I feel privileged to have been mentored by someone as successful as she is. In her lab, I accomplished in two years what usually takes people five years to do.”

Carr is hopeful the peptide therapy will work for metastatic small-cell lung cancer because it is so aggressive in spreading. The median survival rate for patients after diagnosis is only two to four months, and only 5 to 10 percent of patients survive for five years.  According to the National Institutes of Health, smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke, radiation and materials like asbestos are particularly at risk of developing the disease.

Carr says current treatments for small-cell lung cancer “are limited and inefficient. Patients initially respond to it, but often develop resistance, leading to recurrence. There haven’t been any new drug developments for this type of cancer in over 30 years.”

Khaled’s lab has studied the peptide for breast cancer in animal models, with the next step being clinical trials. Carr and her mentor will now do the same testing for small-cell lung cancer. “Ana is smart, dedicated and is passionate about cancer research,” Khaled said.  “That’s the recipe for success and I’m thrilled that Ana’s next career stage as a post-doctoral scientist will be in my lab.”

As Carr prepared for graduation, she reflected on the late hours in the lab, the defense of her dissertation and how her children – an 11-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy – provided support and inspiration along the way. Her daughter says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up.

“They were so wonderful these past six months, when I had to finish the paper that’s just been published, and finish my dissertation and defend it. I wouldn’t have done this without them,” she said.

“They call me ‘Doctor Mommy.’ I don’t think I’ve processed yet that I’m actually graduating.  It’s just the feeling of, I did it.”