Baker Institute for Animal Health


Trainee Spotlight

Villanueva awarded graduate fellowship to support colon cancer research

Jonathan Villanueva, a PhD student in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences program working in Dr. Charles Danko's lab, has been awarded a graduate fellowship from the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. The one-year grant will support Villanueva and his research on how different combinations of mutations in colon cancer result in unique tumor properties – a factor that could impact the effectiveness of potential treatments.

"One of the major challenges in treating patients with colorectal cancer is inter-tumor heterogeneity," said Villanueva. "It's this idea that biological differences between tumors and patients can lead those tumors to exhibit unique behaviors and be receptive to different therapeutics."

Villanueva is attempting to explain that heterogeneity by collaborating with Dr. Lukas Dow and Dr. Shuibing Chen at Weill Cornell Medical, who have developed intestinal organoids – "little intestines in a dish" – engineered to harbor combinations of common colon cancer mutations. Villanueva uses techniques developed in the Danko lab to find out how unique mutational contexts drive changes to which genes are turned on and off in the cells. This relationship is important for understanding how inter-tumor heterogeneity affects cancer cell behaviors like the speed of growth.

"Jon Villanueva is a creative young scientist who will no doubt have a huge impact in the war on cancer," said Danko, an associate professor at the Baker Institute.

The College of Veterinary Medicine Graduate Fellowship will support Villanueva as he wraps up his graduate research and plans his next steps within academia. He plans to develop his own research program using genomics and bioinformatics techniques to study disease and to continue mentoring young scientists.