January 17, 2018
Alyssa Cozzo, doctoral candidate in nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has been named recipient of the 2017 Marci Kramish Campbell Dissertation Award. The $5,000 prize recognizes excellence in dissertation research focused on cancer and the population sciences.
“Alyssa is a phenomenal student who has brought innovative ideas and techniques to the lab,” said Liza Makowski, PhD, Cozzo’s adviser. Makowski, adjunct associate professor nutrition at the Gillings School, is a former UNC Lineberger member now on the faculty of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Obesity has been linked to increased risk of invasive breast cancer, metastasis, or the spread of the cancer to distant sites in the body, and breast cancer-related death.
Cozzo studies how the tissue micro-environment in the breast of obese people affects cancer risk and/or outcomes for a collection of breast cancer subtypes known as “triple-negative.”
The tissue micro-environment refers to the surrounding local conditions to which a given cell is exposed, including signaling factors, structural components that hold the tissue together or other cell types such as immune cells. Specifically, she investigates how obesity may affect inflammation and immune cells linked to inflammation within the breast tissue micro-environment, with a focus on changes to immune cells in fatty tissue. She is also interested in whether those changes can be prevented or reversed through weight loss, or by other means.
Her current study examines obesity-associated inflammatory changes within fatty tissue of the breast and tumors in mice that were lean, obese, or that lost weight intentionally. While analyses are ongoing, the studies have revealed promising findings regarding changes in the number and activation state of select immune cell subsets within mammary fatty tissue.
She currently is using genetic signatures from the immune cells – which indicate the type of immune cells that are present — to corroborate her findings in human breast tissue samples from both healthy subjects and breast cancer patient populations.
Cozzo will graduate in May, after which she plans to attend medical school with the goal of becoming a medical oncologist.
“Receiving the Marci K. Campbell award has supported me in framing my current research within a larger context, and expanding my familiarity with the literature in my field to include more epidemiological and clinical studies, both of which better prepare me for a career in oncology,” Cozzo said. “Since receiving this award, I have also had the opportunity to meet several people at the Gillings School and through UNC Lineberger whose lives were touched directly by Dr. Campbell, which has been a potent and poignant reminder of the importance of cancer research.”
Campbell was a national leader in cancer prevention and control, disparities and survivorship research, a faculty leader at the Gillings School and at UNC, and a program leader at UNC Lineberger. She died in December 2011, after living with cancer for nearly two years. (See the Gillings School obituary here.)
A version of this article appeared originally on the UNC Lineberger website.