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Cowart studies lipids linked to obesity-related disease and bolsters Massey lipidomics resource core with $800,000 instrument

L. Ashley Cowart, Ph.D.

Many of the cell signaling pathways that are involved in obesity-related disease overlap those involved in the development of cancer, and higher amounts of body fat are associated with an increased risk of 13 types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

L. Ashley Cowart, Ph.D., studies a specific class of lipids known as sphingolipids and the role that they play in obesity-related diseases, including cancer, as a means to inform novel treatment approaches.

Cowart joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as the new director of the VCU Lipidomics/ Metabolomics Shared Resource Core (VLMC) and a member of the Cancer Cell Signaling research program in 2018. She is also a professor in biochemistry and molecular biology at the VCU School of Medicine and holds an appointment as a research health scientist at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center.

Cowart studies how alterations in sphingolipid metabolism and signaling could link obesity to increased risk of cancer.

“Metabolic disease is a significant health burden, and we need new treatments and new approaches to addressing obesity-related disease, but our understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms is in its infancy,” Cowart said. “There is a tremendous amount yet to be discovered.”

Sphingolipids have both beneficial and detrimental roles in the development of many human diseases, including some cancers, and are being targeted in an increasing number of clinical trials.

“In some cases, inhibiting the metabolism of sphingolipids is beneficial for disease treatment. In other cases, stimulating the accumulation of sphingolipids is beneficial, especially in cancer treatment because some sphingolipids cause tumor cell death,” Cowart said.

She is also actively researching the role that sphingolipids play in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which increases the risk for hepatocellular carcinoma.

Cowart has big ambitions as the director of the VLMC at Massey, which is currently recognized as one of the premiere and most comprehensive academic lipidomics facilities in the country, if not worldwide. She was recently awarded approximately $800,000 from the state of Virginia through the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund to purchase a Thermo-Fisher Q-exactive mass spectrometer. This state-of-the-art instrument will expand the scope of the core far beyond lipids to water-soluble molecules, including amino acids, metabolic intermediates and many others.

“We’ve never really offered anything broader than lipidomics until now. The new instrument will enable investigators to conduct studies in cancer metabolomics, which is a current emphasis at the National Cancer Institute,” Cowart said. “In addition to gaining new information on potential pathways that can be targeted for cancer treatment, these approaches can also identify novel biomarkers and predictors of disease risk. Lipids are my primary passion, but non-lipid molecules are the passion of many other investigators at Massey Cancer Center and VCU, so part of our mission is to facilitate their research in those areas.”

As she continues to develop the VLMC, Cowart hopes to involve more translational scientists in research collaborations that will exploit the new capacity for metabolomics.

Cowart grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Furman University. She studied lipids that mediate inflammation while earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Vanderbilt University before completing her post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Yusuf Hannun, M.D., at the Medical University of South Carolina. Cowart joined MUSC as a faculty member in 2005.

Cowart was attracted to VCU in 2017 because of its reputable scientific environment, the growing prestige of Massey, its openness to cross-disciplinary research collaborations and the “world-famous” work of a current collaborator, Sarah Spiegel, Ph.D., co-leader of the Cancer Cell Signaling program at Massey, Mann T. and Sara D. Lowry Chair in Oncology and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at VCU School of Medicine.

Cowart has over 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals, including FASEB Journal, the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the Journal of Lipid Research and the Journal of Clinical Investigation. She is an associate editor of the scientific journal PLOS One; an editorial board member of the Journal of Lipid Research and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine: Cardiovascular Metabolism; and an editorial advisory board member of the Biochemical Journal. Cowart has served on several NIH study sections and is currently a member of the Myocardial Ischemia and Metabolism study section. She currently holds $1.8 million in funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to study the role of sphingolipids in a diabetic heart disorder, and she has received more than $3.4 million in funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs since 2005.

In addition to her many seminars in universities across the country and invited talks at Gordon, Keystone and other conferences, Cowart delivered the keynote lecture at the International Ceramide Conference in 2017, and in 2018, she was awarded the Mencius Lectureship by Qingdao University in China.

She lives in Richmond with her nine-year-old daughter, and she enjoys yoga, climbing on the rocks at Belle Isle, reading and traveling.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: March 22, 2019