An associate professor with tenure in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at The Ohio State University, Dr. Zobeida Cruz-Monserrate focuses her research on pancreatic diseases — in particular, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), a cancer with dismal long-term survival rates and limited advances in treatment.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that the overall five-year survival rate is about 10% for pancreatic cancer, a disease that accounts for only 3% of cancer cases in the United States but for 7% of cancer deaths. The ACS projects that more than 60,000 cases will be diagnosed in 2021 and that more than 48,000 people will die of it this year.
“My long-term goals are to develop strategies for detecting, preventing and treating PDAC and pancreatitis by uncovering biological mechanisms related to the initiation of these diseases,” says Cruz-Monserrate, a native of Puerto Rico who lives in Dublin with her husband (Carmelo Mateo) of 21 years and their two children.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in coastal marine biology, she moved to Maryland in 2000 to study marine-derived antimitotic compounds as therapeutic agents against cancer at the National Cancer Institute. That sparked an interest in further cancer studies and motivated her to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She then completed postdoctoral studies at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and was an instructor there for two years before coming to Ohio State in 2015.
The deadliness of PDAC is one reason Cruz-Monserrate studies this disease, which usually isn’t detected until symptoms appear at later stages, making it difficult to treat. “Only around 20% of cases can undergo surgical resection of the pancreas, which is the only curative method,” she says.
Although the five-year survival rate is close to 10%, research has boosted that rate from 6% since 2000; that slight improvement motivates her to keep searching for better ways to prevent, detect and treat it.
Her laboratory has received more than $350,000 in Pelotonia money that has funded many of her research trainees and an Idea Grant that she and a team of faculty scientists received in 2020 to study adipose tissue (body fat) contributions to pancreatic cancer. Obesity is a risk factor for this disease. The Idea Grant is helping this team determine why adipose tissue affects pancreatic tumor components that can promote cancer development and progression, and to develop strategies to identify obese individuals at risk of developing PDAC.
“Our study results could help guide preventive, early-detection and treatment approaches to obesity-associated pancreatic cancer,” Cruz-Monserrate explains, adding that data from the study will enable the team to apply for an NCI grant.
She is grateful for Pelotonia funding and supported the cause again this year as captain of the Team Buckeye/Guts in Gear Peloton she formed a few years ago.
This was her sixth year of participating in Pelotonia; her fundraising goal is $1,250. Last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, she committed to walk daily and eat healthy during her pregnancy for her daughter, who was born on Aug. 4, close to the virtual Ride Weekend held under the modified My Pelotonia format.
Her athletic days may be behind her, but Cruz-Monserrate has made progress in cycling. “During my first Pelotonia in 2016, I touched a bike for the first time since I was a kid,” she says. “I went bike shopping with my husband, and he said, ‘We’re not going to get you a fancy bike.’ So, he got a second-hand mountain bike at a sports equipment store. Everyone at the Pelotonia starting line said, ‘You’re going to ride with that?’ I ride the minimum number of miles each year but with my heart all in.”
Two years ago, she won a new bicycle in a Team Buckeye raffle. “Now, I have a very fancy bike that I use once a year, except for sometimes riding with my family around the neighborhood.”
Fortunately for humanity, Cruz-Monserrate has formidable skills in other areas, such as studying a deadly disease. “It’s important for researchers who receive these funds to show the community we also believe in the Pelotonia mission and that we’re in this together,” she says.
She notes that one of her past rides occurred shortly after her husband’s brother died of colorectal cancer at a very young age. “At the start of my ride that year, I put my phone on my bike and shared a Facebook Live image of myself dedicating the ride to his memory. That made for a memorable and motivational moment for our family back in Puerto Rico.
It also reinforced the concept that having support from Pelotonia is super critical.”