Massey biologist studies role of lipids in the development of lung cancer and resistance to chemotherapy
VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Santiago Lima, Ph.D., studies the role of lipids in the development of lung cancer in an effort to minimize tumor resistance to drugs and improve patient outcomes. Lima is interested in understanding the molecular and metabolic changes that occur in normal cells as they are transforming into cancer cells. He studies how a specific class of lipids, called glycosphingolipids, change during the development of cancer cells and how these changes might lead to cancers becoming resistant to standard chemotherapies.
Lima joined Massey as a member of the Cancer Cell Signaling research program in 2017 and is an assistant professor of cancer biology in the Biology Department at VCU.
His primary research focus is in lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.
“Unfortunately, for some patients with advanced lung cancer, there is a good chance that their cancer could be resistant to some of the first-line therapies used in the clinic,” Lima said. “I’m trying to figure out whether glycosphingolipid changes are involved in cancer development and drive intrinsic drug resistance. If we can figure out the mechanisms that govern those cellular changes, maybe we can target them to decrease, or even prevent, tumor resistance prior to chemotherapy or other treatments.”
During his post-doctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the mentorship of Bob Sauer, Ph.D., Lima identified a lipid that detected stress and initiated a cellular response in bacteria. His research interests then quickly shifted to understand how lipids related to cancer development.
“Sarah Spiegel [the program co-leader of Cancer Cell Signaling] was gracious enough to bring me aboard at Massey,” Lima said. “Her work seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to make a jump into translational research in humans. It was a natural progression from working with lipids in bacteria to working with lipids in cancer cells.”
For Lima, his passion is born from the desire to help people.
“It’s really discouraging for people to get a cancer diagnosis, but it’s even worse if patients are told that therapy isn’t working,” Lima said. “Cancer research takes a whole lot of people and a lot of time. Everybody has their little contribution, and my hope is that I can contribute in any way to make cancer patients’ lives better.”
With a strong interest in health disparities research, Lima also seeks to discover if there are molecular differences present among tumor cells of various racial populations with the same type of cancer.
Lima grew up in Cuernavaca, a city in south central Mexico, where he lived until he moved to the United States to study biochemistry at the University of Georgia. He went on to earn a doctorate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. Throughout his academic career, he was trained as a structural biologist and protein biochemist, but he decided he wanted to focus on something other than X-ray crystallography after he graduated.
Lima has been published in 20 peer-reviewed journals including Autophagy, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Science. He was awarded a Loan Repayment Program Award from the National Cancer Institute in 2018 and an NIH Career Transition Award (K22) in 2014.
As a former 5-time member of the Mexican National Swim Team and 12-time Mexican national champion, it only makes sense that Lima is now the captain of Team Massey for the upcoming Swim Across America Richmond Open Water Swim. The open water swimming event takes place on the upper James River on October 6, and money raised will support cancer research at Massey. Lima is planning to complete the 5-mile swim, and is currently looking for participants to join his team.
“Just like everyone else, there are people in my family with cancer. I teach about it, I research it and I also live it, so there’s a multi-faceted connection for me to take part in this event,” he said.
Lima is married to Amanda Dickinson, Ph.D., an associate professor of developmental biology in the Biology Department at VCU whose research focuses on craniofacial development. Together, they live in Richmond with their six-year-old son, Oliver, and spend much of their free time outdoors, typically around the water, where Lima likes to fish.