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Dr. Katherine Y. Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., is an assistant professor and Harrison Endowed Scholar in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy, with a joint appointment in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, Epidemiology division at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine (VCU). She is also a full member of the VCU Massey Cancer Center where she is the founding director for the Office of Catchment Area Data Access and Alignment (CADA) and a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program. With over 20 publications, her research is grounded in health equity, and centers on elucidating how the community-ome (the interactive elements encompassing our individual and aggregate community experiences) impact cancer outcomes for minoritized populations (e.g., racial, and ethnic, sexual gender and geographic). Her current (NIH and ACS) funded research explores the influence of the microbiome on disparate progression of precancerous lesions, specifically in the cervix and lung. This work earned her a 2022 NextGen Star award through the American Association of Cancer Research. She is also the Principal Investigator of Project COALESCE (Clinics & COmmunities TAckling RaciaL DisparitiEs, Systemic in (Colon and Cervical) Cancer ScrEening), a two-year quality improvement initiative that partners Federally Qualified Health Centers and grassroots community organizations across Virginia to address systemic, race-related barriers to colon and cervical cancer screening.
Prior to joining VCU, Dr. Tossas was a research assistant professor in the division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and a leader at the UIC Cancer Center, where she served as Co-I and Co-PI for numerous NIH, and non-federally funded projects and was the founding director for the Office of Global Assets and Innovative Approaches (GAIA), and the Office of Catchment Area Research and Data Sciences (CARDS). She also served as co-director for the Office of Community Engaged Research and Implementation Science (OCERIS), within the Community Outreach and Engagement program at the cancer center.
Before re-entering academia at UIC, Dr. Tossas held leadership positions at various local, state, and national non-profits including the American Cancer Society, and the American Hospital Association. She also worked nearly 10 years in the Molecular Diagnostics Division of Abbott Laboratories. Dr. Tossas earned a B.S. in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico (MARC and Howard Hughes scholar), an M.S. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Michigan (Rackham Merit fellow) and a Ph.D. in Cancer Epidemiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago (Susan G. Komen scholar).
Forbes magazine called the eradication of cervical cancer (CCa) a “low hanging fruit”: We have cost-effective screening, we know its cause: human papillomavirus (HPV), and we have an effective vaccine. Though effective, CCa screening leads to thousands of biopsies on indolent cervical lesions. Why? Because most HPV infections clear and some lesions regress on their own. So, which ones will not? Vaginal microbes (VMB) are implicated in sustaining HPV infection and cervical lesions. Non-Latina (nL)-Black and Latina women are less likely to have what is considered an “optimal” VMB compared to nL-whites. My work explores the role of the VMB on cervical cancer and pre-cancer, using epidemiological, and bioinformatics approaches. My goal is that findings from my research serve to inform physicians in their decision to treat or not to treat, and perhaps if the VMB is involved in etiology, to determine if it could be exploited as a pre or probiotic.
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