An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Samantha Bonar | April 4, 2017
Carlos Mendez-Dorantes Carlos Mendez-Dorantes is studying the role of DNA in how cancer develops, grows and spreads
Carlos Mendez-Dorantes, a second-year graduate student working in the laboratory of City of Hope professor of cancer genetics and epigenetics Jeremy Stark, Ph.D., was recently awarded a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, for his graduate education. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, he and Stark are studying the formation of cancer-causing changes in DNA.
The Ford Foundation is a highly competitive program that seeks to increase diversity in academia to enrich education opportunities for all students by providing scholarships to underrepresented populations. Only 60 students across the country receive the fellowship each year, which provides an annual stipend of $24,000. Mendez-Dorantes is pursuing his Ph.D. at the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at City of Hope.
“As a Mexican immigrant and a first-generation college student from Southeast Los Angeles, I am humbled and excited for the opportunities this fellowship will provide during my graduate education at City of Hope and beyond,” Mendez-Dorantes said. The fellowship will fund his education for the next three years, starting in September.
The work Mendez-Dorantes is doing with Stark in the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope's Department of Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics seeks to understand the factors and pathways that influence genome stability, as well as cancer-associated chromosomal rearrangements.
“Specifically, we study repair pathways of chromosomal breaks in mammalian cells,” Mendez-Dorantes said. “For my dissertation research, I am excited to use molecular biology and genetics to understand the regulation of the mutagenic repair pathway of chromosomal breaks called single-strand annealing. Given that this pathway is always mutagenic, causing chromosomal rearrangements, it is significant to understand the mechanisms that prevent an overreliance on single-strand annealing to minimize genetic loss. Thus, the research from our lab provides important insights into the etiology of cancer, as well as the mechanisms of cancer cell resistance to chromosomal break-inducing therapeutics.”
Stark and Mendez-Dorantes’ research is focused on characterizing the homologous recombination (HR) DNA repair pathway, particularly the single-strand annealing (SSA) mutagenic subpathway. For example, they are seeking to define genes that affect the requirement for the tumor suppressor BRCA1 during HR. Inherited mutations in BRCA1 result in defects in the HR pathway of DNA repair, which likely causes an accumulative loss of genetic information that contributes to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. They seek to identify genes that influence the requirement for BRCA1 during HR, and hence affect the probability that loss of BRCA1 will cause an increase in cancer risk. These studies are part of an overall effort to identify the genetic regulation of HR that favors conservative repair that is relatively restorative to the genome, versus HR events that are prone to genetic loss (such as SSA).
Mendez-Dorantes received his bachelor’s from Bennington College in Vermont, where he studied biology and chemistry, and discovered that he enjoyed research. During his time at Bennington, he spent two summers working at City of Hope as a member of the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, where he conducted breast cancer research alongside Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cancer Biology.
“As a summer student, I learned about the impressive and diverse basic and translational research being conducted at City of Hope,” he said. “I also learned that City of Hope was a supportive and intellectually challenging environment where I imagined continuing my science education.”
Mendez-Dorantes has already co-authored four studies published in peer-reviewed journals.  His ultimate goal is to become a professor in molecular biology.
“I’ve been fortunate to have supportive professors and mentors who have been instrumental in my educational trajectory,” he said. “My dream is to inspire others, especially those of underrepresented backgrounds, to pursue a science education.”