José L. McFaline-Figueroa: Innovating Cancer Treatment with Single-Cell Genomics and Chemical Biology

Brittani Wright
June 10, 2024

José L. McFaline-Figueroa, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and an associate member of the Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics whose pioneering research focuses on defining the molecular changes that cancer cells undergo in response to therapy and the genetic factors driving these responses. His laboratory employs single-cell genetic and chemical genomic tools to map these cellular responses, aiming to catalog treatment-induced changes associated with therapy resistance as well as those that present opportunities for novel combinatorial treatment strategies.

Dr. McFaline-Figueroa’s interest in cancer biology was sparked during his time as a research technician in Professor Peter Dedon’s lab at MIT. Reflecting on this period, he shares, “As a technician, I used mass spectrometry to quantify the levels of carcinogenic damage products in DNA and RNA. I found the tangible link between cellular changes and cancer risk very powerful. These experiences motivated me to pursue a PhD in Cancer Biology, focusing more broadly on the balance between sensitivity and resistance to anti-cancer therapy.”

Dr. McFaline-Figueroa speaks highly of his involvement with IICD, stating, “IICD has been a wonderful second academic home for my laboratory and me. We are active in seminars, poster sessions, and outreach. It is a rich resource of expertise in quantitative approaches for the study of cancer and cancer genomics.” He highlights his collaboration with Professor Elham Azizi’s lab - Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Cancer Data Research - where they apply probabilistic and deep generative models to analyze the effects of chemical exposure on transcriptional networks in cancer cells.

His group has made significant strides in understanding glioblastoma (GBM), particularly its response to EGFR-targeted therapies. “We were astonished to observe the heterogeneity in tumor cell response to EGFR inhibition based on the specific compounds applied. Understanding the consequences of this heterogeneity is critical for developing more effective treatments,” he explains. The lab's research has identified compounds that either enhance or inhibit the effectiveness of repeated treatments, providing insights into overcoming resistance to targeted agents in GBM therapy.

When asked about the most promising advancements in cancer research, Dr. McFaline-Figueroa notes, “The advances in cancer immunotherapy have been astounding, but I also see immense promise in increasing the potency of existing therapies. We need an all-out approach against cancer.”

Dr. José L. McFaline-Figueroa's dedication to understanding and combating cancer at the molecular level continues to push the boundaries of biomedical research, offering hope for more effective cancer treatments and improved patient outcomes.