Ekaterina Koltsova, MD, PhD

Ekaterina Koltsova, MD, PhD

Exploring the Links Between Inflammation, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer

Ekaterina Koltsova, MD, PhD, an immunologist and vascular biologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, knew she wanted to be a doctor from the time she was a young child.

Born and raised in Moscow, Koltsova received her medical degree from the Russian State Medical University (RSMU). “Toward the entrance to university, I started to think there was more to medicine in terms of how disease really develops. The faculty I chose to go to for my training was a medical biological faculty. I found that to be very interesting. Thinking about it still, I feel very lucky because I got the chance to be not just a pure doctor, but get this deep understanding of mechanisms of health and disease,” Koltsova said.

She came to Fox Chase in 2004 to work toward her doctorate through an exchange program with RSMU, where she studied T cell development in the laboratory of David Wiest, PhD. Koltsova then did postdoctoral training at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in California.

“My mentors strongly influenced my development as a scientist” Koltsova said. “David Wiest taught me how to be productive in the lab and how to answer interesting questions, one by one. His ‘do it’ style really accelerated my career, and his style continues to be an important component of overall research development and spirit at Fox Chase.”

Her postdoctoral mentor, Klaus Ley, MD, provided the freedom necessary for her to undertake scientific projects she was deeply interested in and helped her learn how to disseminate findings in the scientific community, she said. Ley is a professor and head of the Division of Inflammation Biology at the La Jolla Institute.

“My training gave me a very different perspective. Science is a lot about interactions between people and learning from bright colleagues inside and outside of my scientific area, not just sitting in the lab. Science is also about trying to answer the most interesting question that keeps you awake at night, not necessarily the most obvious, immediate, or practical question.”

Koltsova came back to Fox Chase in 2014 in part because of its long history of first-class basic, “curiosity-driven” science at the center. She is now an associate professor in the Blood Cell Development and Function research program, where she continued to study cardiovascular diseases. She expanded her research into how the immune system regulates diseases and processes previously thought to be unrelated to the immune system.

“When I started my independent lab I continued this focus and broadened it with the idea that decompartmentalizing the immune system can control the normal function of the body and contribute to disease development if some of the standard mechanisms get broken. We decided to look into the idea that chronic inflammation may be an important player,” she said.

Represented by a cascade of mechanisms, inflammation is integral to the immune response, the body’s natural reaction to injury, infection, or irritation. Its classic signs are swelling, redness, pain, and heat.

There are two types of inflammation: short-term, acute inflammation and chronic, unresolved inflammation. Their molecular and cellular building blocks are the same, but their results definitely aren’t. “Short-term acute inflammation is helpful, especially to protect us against pathogens. But low-grade chronic inflammation is really a bad actor which predisposes us to certain types of cancer, as well as cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases, diabetes, obesity, and liver disease,” Koltsova said.

How we get “good” or “bad” inflammation is not completely understood, and Koltsova and her team continue to work on the problem. Koltsova said she takes what she learned from her mentors and tries to impress those same lessons upon her students.

“I try to teach my students to think broadly about the problems we address and to never be afraid of specific disciplinary borders, whether it is cancer research, immunology, microbiology, or cardiovascular studies. When they reach a certain point in their careers, I encourage them to go to the meetings and meet people to share their ideas and research. I think it’s very important.”

Koltsova is hoping to continue the trend of multidisciplinary, “cool question oriented” research. “I want to be able to do more of the interesting things we’ve been able to do over the last few years. We found several exciting directions that I would like to follow up. We see the potential to maybe translate some of our findings into humans with treatments or diagnostics, but also to answer longstanding questions about the biology of health and disease.”

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