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Diana Cittelly

Diana Cittelly, PhD, Named Co-leader of Tumor Host Interactions Program 

Cittelly joins Michael Verneris, MD, and Jill Slansky, PhD, at the helm of the research initiative that aims to understand how the biology of a person with cancer impacts progression and treatment of the disease. 

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Written by Greg Glasgow on July 18, 2023

Diana Cittelly, PhD, a longtime University of Colorado Cancer Center member and a researcher on cancer that spreads to the brain, has taken on a new role at the CU Cancer Center. 

In May, Cittelly joined Michael Verneris, MD, and Jill Slansky, PhD, as a co-leader of the Tumor Host Interactions research program (THI), which seeks to understand how tumor intrinsic and extrinsic conditions of the person with cancer impact tumor initiation, progression, and therapeutic response, and to harness this information for use in translational pre-clinical studies and clinical trials.  

“Historically, we always have thought of cancer as just the tumor,” Cittelly says. “For many years, we thought about cancer as this isolated, out-of-control growth of cells. We did a lot of things to stop their growth in vitro, and many of the major chemotherapies that we use were developed with cancer cells growing in isolation. But what we have come to realize over the years — and one of the goals of this program — is that the way cancer progresses doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens within a host, or the person who has the cancer.” 

The goal of the THI, she says, is to study the interaction between the cancer cells and the biology of the person who has cancer, and to look at how conditions such as age, gender, and immune response impact cancer progression and metastasis, as well as the response to therapeutics. 

“A lot of what is being done successfully in the treatment in a number of cancers is immunotherapy, which is basically harnessing the host against the tumor,” Cittelly says. 

Member perspective 

As a longtime member of THI, Cittelly says she looks forward to bringing the member perspective to her new role, looking for ways to improve communication and give members more opportunities to get involved. 

“As a member, you don’t always know what’s happening in leadership, and as a leader, you don’t realize sometimes how some members might not feel included in decisions or opportunities,” she says. “My goal is to increase the participation of existing members and get to know more about this area that is one of the big strengths of the cancer center. I also want to help the pipeline of new investigators that are mentored members to become successful and active members of the program. That includes setting up grant workshops and leadership workshops for the mentored members to help keep their research programs alive and thriving.” 

Impressive resume  

Cittelly has been a CU Cancer Center member since 2013 and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Pathology at the CU School of Medicine. She is a cancer researcher with multidisciplinary training in neurosciences, hormone-dependent breast cancer, microRNA biology, cancer stem cell biology, and xenograft models of breast cancer. Her research program focuses on defining how interactions between specialized cells within the brain microenvironment and cancer cells contribute to brain metastatic progression.  

Cittelly, who was born in Colombia, has a BS in biology from Universidad de Colombia, an MS in biochemistry from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and a PhD in cell biology from the University of Texas. It was her time in Texas, studying spinal cord injury, that inspired her to become involved in cancer research. 

“My work was in cell biology and how it responds to injury that happened in the central nervous system,” she says. “I became interested in cancer — particularly in brain metastasis — because it was very interesting to me that the majority of cancer research was done in vitro in models that were isolated. One of the reasons I got excited when I got nominated as a co-leader of the THI is that this program is about that merging the complexity of the cancer with the complexity of the organism.”

Topics: Research, Leadership