• The Star Staff

RUM graduate wins $2 million in grants for cancer-related research

By John McPhaul


Dr. David Soto Pantoja, a graduate of the Mayagüez Campus (RUM by its Spanish acronym) of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), and principal investigator of the Department of Surgery, Cancer and Oncological Radiology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has won three grants totaling $2 million for research that will help fight the spread of cancer.

The first grant was for $800,000, from the American Cancer Society; another of around half a million dollars, from the National Cancer Institute; and a third was for $200,000, awarded jointly by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the American Society for Radiation Oncology.

“I submitted several grant proposals over the past year. The first provides a budget to carry out studies in immunotherapy and cardio-oncology; the next, to study how different breast cancer tumors develop and immunotherapy to prevent metastasis to the lung and brain,” the scientist said. “Meanwhile, the last one will be to investigate the different radiation methods in tumors that are located in the brain area.”

Soto Pantoja has been part of the faculty at Wake Forest, located in Winston-Salem, since 2015. He also completed his doctoral degree in molecular genetics and genomics there, in 2008.

“Our laboratory is focused on finding modalities that can activate the immune system to attack cancer,” said the 2002 graduate of the Department of Biology at RUM. “This is a relatively new area in science known as immunotherapy. The first drugs to be approved have been very successful, but as is often the case with cancer, some patients become resistant, so to speak, to therapy. So we focus on continuing to investigate new genes that can be studied, to create drugs that activate the immune system and counteract the tumor. This is different from chemotherapy, which is directed at the cancer. These drugs do not attack cancer cells, but rather activate the immune system. The other part of our research is based on another area, relatively new, called cardio-oncology.”

Soto Pantoja said that in his studies, he has noticed that many patients survive cancer because of the new drugs that have become available, but in some cases they develop chronic diseases, some of which can lead to heart failure. That is why researchers are exploring new alternatives to increase the chances of patients surviving those side effects and improving their quality of life.

The Arecibo native from the Hato Arriba neighborhood thanked the institution where he began his university studies, which served as a guide and liaison for his later purposes.

“The quality of the education at the college is incomparable,” Soto Pantoja said about his university career. “The opportunities that I got later have been fantastic.”

His journey through the Mayagüez campus of the UPR led Soto Pantoja on to doctoral studies at Wake Forest, where he today stands out as a professor and also directs the summer internship program Experiences in Cardiovascular Sciences.

UPR President Jorge Haddock celebrated the former student’s achievement and what he represents for the institution, as well as for Puerto Rico.

“The university community comes together to support and celebrate the work, as well as the commitment of Dr. David Soto Pantoja to research and health,” Haddock said. “His achievement has a double meaning for our institution, because as the main teaching and scientific center in Puerto Rico, we not only promote that our students succeed professionally, but also that their initiatives and projects contribute to the social and economic well being of the entire world. Without a doubt, Soto Pantoja exemplifies our mission and tradition of success. Congratulations!”

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