When Mohamad El-Zaatari learned recently he had won a $270,000 research grant from the Gastric Cancer Foundation and the American Gastroenterology Association (AGA), he considered the award an essential validation of his choice to study gastric cancer. “This grant is extremely important, and not just for me,” says El-Zaatari, an investigator at the University of Michigan’s medical school who is studying the role of inflammation in gastric cancer. “People in this field, especially in early-stage research, struggle because gastric cancer research is not getting enough research funding compared to other gastrointestinal cancers in the United States.”
The AGA-Gastric Cancer Foundation Research Scholar Award (RSA) in Gastric & Esophageal Cancer was launched last fall with the goal of providing $90,000 per year for three years to young scientists working towards careers in gastric and esophageal cancer research. El-Zaatari is the first recipient of the award.
El-Zaatari’s research centers around determining the process by which chronic inflammation causes certain cells to become malignant. Specifically he aims to characterize changes in inflamed stomach tissue that lead to precancerous conditions. “We can use tools to look at the cell types and genes that are changing during the later stages of inflammation,” he says. Ultimately what he and his colleagues learn could point to new targets for drug development, he says.
El-Zaatari was born and raised in Lebanon and received his undergraduate training in human genetics at the University of Nottingham in England. He then earned his Ph.D. there in pre-clinical oncology. He joined the University of Michigan as a post-doctoral fellow with the intention of specializing in gastric cancer, because he was attracted to the opportunity to make real advances in a type of cancer that’s relatively understudied in the United States, he says.
In his spare time, El-Zaatari enjoys sports and acting, as well as spending time with his wife, Jenna, who runs a bridal store located on the first floor of their condominium where they live near the university. The store is an extension of El-Zaatari’s mom’s bridal business in Lebanon, he says.
As for advancing his research, El-Zaatari says the AGA-GCF grant gives him a big boost, and the support he needs to stay on the tenure track at the university. “It’s great having a grant devoted to gastric cancer,” he says, adding that he hopes the research scholar program will encourage other young scientists to keep searching for potential cures for the disease. “This grant is going to bridge the [financial] support for early research and give more people in this field a chance to become established investigators in gastric cancer.”