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Family experiences fuel a passion for career in cancer research and treatment

A woman smiling in front of a desk.
Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., a researcher at VCU Massey Cancer Center, is working to better understand complications that occur as a result of bone marrow transplantation. (Photo courtesy of VCU Massey Cancer Center)

Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., identifies genetic biomarkers that could aid in the early detection of patients at risk for complications from bone marrow transplantation, hematologic cancers and other malignancies. 

Her mother, a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with the disease while Mohanraj was an undergraduate student in India. Living through that experience solidified in Mohanraj a passion to pursue a career in cancer research and treatment.

“Watching my mom go through it and going to the hospital and seeing the other cancer patients there — it was a lot for me to experience at an impressionable age,” Mohanraj said. “That triggered my interest, and from then on I knew that’s what I was going to do.”

Mohanraj joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program in 2018 and is an assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing’s Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems.

Her primary research interest is to better understand the molecular pathways involved in the complications that occur as a result of bone marrow transplantation, specifically graft-versus-host disease, in which donor stem cells end up attacking the healthy tissues and organs of the patient receiving those cells. Mohanraj is currently the principal investigator on a project funded by the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund.

“My research questions are derived directly from patients and the clinical setting, which is very fulfilling for me,” Mohanraj said. “I am convinced, and truly believe, that questions arising from the bedside and translational research together have the potential to have a direct impact in real time for stem cell transplantation patients.”

Mohanraj grew up in Bombay, India, which is now the city of Mumbai. She earned bachelor’s degrees in microbiology and biochemistry and a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Mumbai.

She was drawn to the field of biochemistry because of a long-standing interest in the human physiological system. She always knew she wanted to conduct research on a molecular level and moved to the United States to further her studies at VCU in 2008.

While completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry under the mentorship of Massey Cancer Molecular Genetics member Swati Deb, Ph.D., Mohanraj’s research focused on inflammatory pathways in lung cancer cells. After graduating, she completed a fellowship in the lab of Massey Developmental Therapeutics member Youngman Oh, Ph.D., studying the role of inflammation and obesity in the development of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances on artery walls.

Following her fellowship, Mohanraj realized that she wanted to do more clinical-based studies in addition to her basic science research. After attending a few translational science classes through the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, she decided to go back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree from the VCU School of Nursing.

It was during this time that Mohanraj began working in Massey’s Cellular Immunotherapies and Transplantation Unit and developed her current passion for better understanding the health complications that arise during bone marrow transplantation.

Her Quest Fund research, funded through 2019, will examine epigenetic markers and frailty as predictors of clinical outcomes in patients undergoing autologous stem cell transplants, in which the patient’s own stem cells are removed, stored and later given back to them after treatment.

Mohanraj has been published in 12 peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Biological Research for Nursing and Oncogene. In 2018, she received a 10 Under 10 award from VCU Alumni, the Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award from the VCU School of Nursing and a 40 Under 40 award from the Virginia Nurses Foundation.