The Charger Blog

University of New Haven Students and Faculty Look to Make Next Breakthrough in Cancer Research

Professors Tina Zito and Carter Takacs and their students are studying potential improvements to existing cancer-fighting drugs and are using zebrafish to better understand cancer-causing gene mutations.

October 26, 2018

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing & Communications

Tina Zito and Carter Tackacs
(L-R) Tina Zito, Ph.D., and Carter Tackacs, Ph.D. (Photo by Anna Downs '21)

Tina Zito, Ph.D., a University of New Haven assistant professor of cellular and molecular biology, is growing cancer cell lines in the laboratory, studying what causes cells to grow and how that growth can be stopped. Though she focuses on gynecological cancers, including breast and cervical cancer, her research will give scientists a better understanding of all types of cancer.

“What we learn about cancer can also teach us about other diseases, as well as normal processes in the body, from aging to muscular dystrophy,” said Zito.

Zito is one of five full-time faculty members within the University’s Department of Biology and Environmental Science conducting cancer research.

This work, which took center stage in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is now expanding to include more breast cancer research, thanks to Sam Sorbello, a former Chargers Football player and University benefactor. Sorbello’s generosity has enabled faculty members to purchase new supplies and equipment, as well as renovate a research laboratory in Dodds Hall that has been dedicated in honor of Sorbello’s late wife, Colleen, who died of breast cancer.

Zito says breast cancer research has come a long way. Scientists are getting better at understanding how each patient’s cancer is unique, and that can mean more effective treatments. She says her research focuses not on creating new drugs to treat cancer, but on how to best use existing drugs.

“When we support students’ research, we help ensure they will have the skills they need to get jobs that enable them to make a real difference.”Tina Zito, Ph.D.

Carter Takacs, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology, uses zebrafish in his cancer research. He says the research community is increasingly using zebrafish, since they, like humans, are vertebrates, and studying them increases our understanding of human health and disease.

Zebrafish can generate hundreds of embryos in a single morning, and since these embryos are completely transparent, scientists can easily assess how the cells behave as they move and organize into organs and tissues. Studying zebrafish enables scientists, such as Takacs, to understand how genes instruct the formation of different cell types and organs.

“The work we are doing at the University of New Haven aims to study how genes regulate cell behavior,” he said. “The insights gained from this work will not only give us a better understanding of how cells decide when to divide, move, and differentiate, but will also shed light on how genetic mutations can cause these same processes to go awry, such as in cancer.”

Faculty members aren’t conducting this important research alone. Zito’s students are working on research projects related to breast cancer, studying differences between various categories of the disease. She has five graduate and undergraduate students taking part in cancer research during the 2018-2019 academic year, and she is hoping to increase that number in the future.

“When we support students’ research, we help ensure they will have the skills they need to get jobs that enable them to make a real difference,” said Zito. “Science isn’t just about classroom knowledge, it’s about doing laboratory research. Students need hands-on experience, and they are getting that at the University of New Haven.”