JULY 14, 2020, New York— Ludwig Cancer Research welcomes Juanita L. Merchant to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Merchant is a practicing clinician and an accomplished researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where she is Professor and Chief of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. She joins a group of distinguished scientists who advise the Scientific Director of the Ludwig Institute, Chi Van Dang, on the research strategy, priorities and scientific staffing of the organization.
“We are very excited to have Juanita on board as an advisor, and I am sure that our research program will benefit a great deal from her guidance and advice,” said Dang. “Her extensive experience investigating the genesis and prevention of gastrointestinal cancers will be of great value to the committee, especially since laboratories across Ludwig Cancer Research are actively engaged in related investigations.”
Merchant has long studied how bacteria like Helicobacter pylori contribute to the development of gastric cancers. Her lab has described how inflammatory factors produced in response to microbial infection and the modulation of a cellular signaling cascade (the sonic hedgehog pathway) prompt changes in gastric tissue and local immune cells that precede the emergence of such tumors. She and her team also discovered that a controller of gene expression known as ZBP-89 contributes to the development of colon cancer, and they are exploring its role in carcinogenesis and regulation by butyrate, a metabolite of dietary fiber produced by commensal gut bacteria.
Merchant has, in addition, made some surprising discoveries about the cellular origins of duodenal neuroendocrine tumors known as gastrinomas—showing that they likely originate from neural tissues of the intestines rather than the cellular lining of the gut, as was commonly believed. The findings have implications for the development of targeted therapies for gastrinoma, and she and her team have now constructed mouse models to further elucidate the molecular and physiological mechanisms that fuel this cancer.
As a clinician, Merchant is also a co-investigator in the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention. In this capacity, she is studying how to ensure respectful, culturally sensitive and effective interactions for cancer research and care between the University of Arizona Cancer Center and woefully underserved Native American communities. As a leader of this effort, she also serves as an intermediary between tribal communities and federal and state agencies.
Merchant earned her medical degree and PhD from Yale University in 1984 and completed her residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she also was a research fellow. She then joined the University of California, Los Angeles for a clinical fellowship in gastroenterology and from there was hired onto the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School in 1991, where she was last H. Marvin Pollard Professor of Gastrointestinal Sciences before joining the University of Arizona in 2018. Merchant has won numerous awards for her scientific research and is member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Medicine, where she currently serves on the Council.