Conversation with Dr. Renato J. Aguilera, University of Texas at El Paso

Examining How Race and Ethnicity Affect Cancer Incidence and Therapy

NIMHD's Conversations with Principal Investigators at Research Centers in Minority Institutions

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month this year, we are recognizing prominent researchers impacting minority health and health disparities at institutions that are historically committed to training populations underrepresented in science.

The Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) program promotes minority health and health disparities research while increasing diversity among scientists and supporting diversity in clinical studies. Its three-tiered research structure offers opportunities for basic, clinical, and/or behavioral research to generate discoveries in minority health and health disparities.

Dr. Renato J. Aguilera

Meet Dr. Renato J. Aguilera, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Director of the Research Infrastructure Core Facility and Director of the Cellular Characterization and Biorepository Facility at the Border Biomedical Research Center (BRCC). Through support from the RCMI, UTEP created the BBRC to address Hispanic health disparities unique to the far West Texas Borderplex. Dr. Aguilera previously served as an assistant and associate professor in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was the Director and mentor of the university's Minority Biomedical Research Support (MARC) undergraduate training program during that time.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Dr. Aguilera’s father was from Mexico and his mother was second generation Mexican-American. He lived in Mexico until he was 15 years old—an important phase in his life that taught him to appreciate his rich Mexican heritage. Dr. Aguilera admits it was a challenge transitioning to the American educational system when he moved back to El Paso. He reflects, “I had a very tough time trying to adjust because I did not speak English at all. Taking on this challenge, I was able to survive well enough to graduate with senior honors in English, political science, and history. I am very proud of this achievement.”

Dr. Aguilera has extensive experience in immunology, cancer research, molecular and cell biology, and drug screening. His Ph.D. in immunology allowed him to venture into AIDS research briefly. Soon afterward, he realized that enormous health disparities affect minority communities and their vulnerability to HIV infection. With this early venture into HIV research, he started looking at disease from a different perspective.

He is now focused on determining how race and ethnicity affect cancer incidence and prevalence. Dr. Aguilera currently leads a group of researchers trying to establish Hispanic-derived cancer cell lines from various tissues to determine if new and commercial anti-cancer drugs have the same effect on cancer cell lines derived from Hispanics. In collaboration with local physicians, the group recently determined that Hispanic patients with triple-negative breast cancer have distinct genetic mutations from those seen among other ethnicities. As certain cancers are more prevalent and aggressive in Hispanic populations, it is important not only to find the causes for these disparities but also the therapies that may be most effective in this racial and ethnic population group.

Undoubtedly, Dr. Aguilera is passionate about minority and health disparities research, but he is also passionate about mentoring young and aspiring researchers from underrepresented minority groups. At UTEP, he increased the number of Ph.D. students in biological sciences, and brought in major funding from the NIGMS Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program that trains minority undergraduates and Ph.D. students in biomedical research.

For his long-standing commitment to student training and mentorship, he received the prestigious American Society for Microbiology William A. Hinton Research Training Award in 2010, the SACNAS Distinguished Research Mentor Award in 2013 and the SACNAS Distinguished Scientist Award in 2019.

Q&A with Dr. Renato Aguilera

What is the center’s research goal, purpose and aim?
UTEP, through support from the RCMI program, created BBRC to develop, grow and sustain the existing biomedical research infrastructure and programs. In addition, the BBRC recruits, trains, and develops cancer scientists and health practitioners to promote high-quality cancer research and to translate meaningful findings back to the community.

Hispanic cancer-related health disparities that affect our region lead to disproportionately higher rates of premature morbidity and mortality. Enhancing the connection of minority and disenfranchised communities to new health advances requires effective communication and health education, engaging more participants, producing more investigators, and enhancing the research infrastructure at minority-serving institutions like UTEP. The BBRC has evolved over the past 27 years from leveraging existing physical and intellectual resources to promoting and supporting translational research to reduce health disparities in the border region and across the country.

From the research you’re doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your center and its impact?
During our search for Hispanic-derived cancer cell lines to test with newly discovered anti-cancer agents, we found very few such cell lines available from reliable commercial sources. In fact, we could only find one Hispanic-derived breast cancer line, which did not provide much information on the patient’s ethnicity. For this reason, our group started a project to establish additional Hispanic-derived cancer cell lines in our BBRC cancer tissue repository.

In addition, Dr. Robert Kirken’s group has recently identified new phosphoregulatory sites within the Janus tyrosine kinase family known to be associated with hematological cancers that disproportionately affect Hispanic Americans. Genomic sequencing of a small cohort of Hispanic acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) patients identified unique mutations not present in available databases. Hopefully these findings can lead to improved diagnosis and treatments for Hispanic and other ALL patients.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
As a basic researcher for the first 15 years of my academic career, I realized that I had not contributed to anything that would have an immediate or profound effect on human health. For this reason, I changed my research to pursue projects that could improve health disparities. Given that minorities are more susceptible to certain types of cancer, I decided to work on anti-cancer drug discovery. Ideally, we would like to find drugs that are effective on cancers that disproportionately affect our minority communities (e.g., prostate, colon, breast); I have devoted the past 15-plus years to discovering new anti-cancer drugs.

Interestingly, we have recently found that pyronaridine, an anti-malarial drug used on millions of patients for over 30 years, induces cell death in various cancer types, including triple-negative breast cancer. Before retiring, I hope to uncover additional drugs with strong anti-cancer activities to mitigate or abolish health disparities.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
Those of us who teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students have to encourage these students to follow their dreams, and if those dreams happen to be like ours, then it is not that difficult to show them the way. We were mentored and trained by others and we must pay it forward by training the next generation of scientists.

I have been fortunate to have successfully implemented NIH training programs at UCLA and at UTEP that primarily trained underrepresented students. Over the past 25 years, the NIH training programs that I implemented have trained over 300 undergraduates, and it is very gratifying to see our former trainees become Ph.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s who continue on to academic and biomedical research careers.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
My hope is that our collective research and discoveries in the field of minority health and health disparities will result in improved therapies against cancers and other diseases that disproportionately affect minority populations. I also hope that RCMI-funded institutions as well as other minority serving institutions will generate sufficient well-trained minority research scientists to take on the future health challenges that may negatively affect minority populations, such as new SARS-CoV-2 variants and other unforeseen disease agents.

In addition, I hope that RCMI-funded institutions will improve the communication between scientists, health practitioners and their local communities so that they are better informed on infection rates, vaccines and other health issues that may directly affect them.

Page updated September 22, 2021