For Theresa Pacheco, MD, time spent with her patients is only a part of her day. The other is discovering science that can help patients she will never meet.
Theresa Pacheco, MD, had a father in health care, an interest in science and a strong stomach when she was a kid in rural Colorado. Those things led her where she is today—part of a University of Colorado Cancer Center team that is working to develop a sunscreen that can sense DNA damage from sun exposure and even repair it.
Pacheco is one of seven children in a family from San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town. When she was 14 years old, her father, a dentist, needed an on-demand assistant and she fit the bill. Pacheco’s quiet but solid demeanor matched his requirements for a dental assistant.
“I always liked science,” says Pacheco. “My father said medicine was a great choice for women and I just followed that path.”
Pacheco’s path took her to the University of Rochester in upstate New York and then led her back to Colorado and a career in skin research.
Pacheco’s research at the University of Colorado School of Medicine started with the study of pigmentation and ‘sun spots.’ She received an award to look at the molecular basis of a pigmentation disorder called generalized lentiginous. Although commonly thought to be only a cosmetic nuisance, understanding what causes ‘sun spots’ is important because melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, is primarily caused by repeated sun damage.
“My research is considered clinical-translational,” Pacheco says. “Everyone talks about how that’s important. In the sun spot research project, I literally took the research from observations in the clinic back to the bench.”
This laboratory study of sun spots ultimately led to the mapping a new gene in the lab under the mentorship of Richard Spritz, MD, of the Human Medical Genetics and Genomics Program. It sounds simple, but this took years.
Now, Pacheco is collaborating with Yiqun Shellman, PhD, a research expert in pigmentation from the department of dermatology, and with Kristin Artinger, PhD, an expert in neural crest development from the molecular biology program. Under their collective expertise, the research continues using various lab and animal models to understand why the gene they mapped is important for pigment cell growth and survival, and ultimately how the gene contributes to diseases like melanoma.
Pacheco says that instead of clinic-to-bench, the workflow of her sunscreen research project went the other way: “I am doing the opposite.” She says, “I am taking research from the clinic to the bench.”
In the clinic, Pacheco had been working with patients who had undergone organ transplants. Interestingly, the same drugs that transplant patients use to prevent organ rejection lower their immune system and increase their skin cancer risk. Pacheco started a clinic in large part for these high-risk patients, and researchers at other institutions, like the Mayo Clinic, took notice. Pacheco was invited to take part in a study that highlighted the need for specialty care for these high-risk skin cancer patients.
That brings us to the sunscreen. A group of scientists at CU Cancer Center including Raj Agarwal, PhD, and Tom Anchordoquy, PhD, from the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Gail Harrison, PhD, from CU School of Medicine; and Michael Glode, MD, from CU Cancer Center, read Pacheco’s study and asked her to be the dermatologist in their efforts to develop a better sunscreen. The sunscreen that resulted from their collaboration not only prevents sunburn and skin cancer but it can detect and repair DNA damage from sun exposure.
Pacheco says there are several reasons their sunscreen is better than existing products. “It uses FDA standards for sunscreens; we were compliant with that. But, we also used a botanical based on Raj Agarwal’s work that makes the formulation better,” Pacheco says. Agarwal is one of the world’s most accomplished scientists exploring the use of naturally occurring compounds to prevent and control cancer.
It’s been eight years between Pacheco’s paper and the team’s product, but the formulation for the sunscreen has a patent pending and it will soon be available to the public. Of course, first there are some business details and possibly even clinical trials.
But for Pacheco it’s all about bringing science to people who can benefit from it. “That’s why we all do this. As a physician, you are limited to helping the patients you come in contact with, but with a scientific discovery you have the opportunity to be able to apply it toward a greater number of patients.”