Endocrine Researcher Works to Understand Hormones, Cancer

The Vontz Center for Molecular Studies houses neuroscience and cancer researchers working to discover and understand the genetic and molecular underpinnings of various stages of disease.  Research at this level is so small that it is usually only visible through its expressed effects on the body.  This “small” research leads to profound discoveries of diagnosis, treatment and prevention. For her ongoing study at this level, Nira Ben-Jonathan, PhD, professor in the Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UC

College of Medicine

, has been named the winner of the 2003 Rieveschl Award for Distinguished Scientific Research. 

Ben-Jonathan is a leading endocrine researcher working to identify relationships between the actions of the endocrine system and certain types of cancer.

The endocrine system is made up of glands that produce chemicals called hormones.  Hormones are released into the bloodstream and are transported throughout the body to regulate many physiological processes.  A major research focus of  Ben-Jonathan’s stems from her curiosity about the brain’s effect on prolactin, a hormone secreted from the pituitary gland involved in lactation and reproduction.

It is this interest that led Ben-Jonathan to research on the role of prolactin in breast cancer, and most recently obesity.  While studying samples of glandular tissue from breast cancer patients, Ben-Jonathan discovered the presence of prolactin in the negative control tissue, the fat tissue around the breast.  Many exciting scientific discoveries are unintentional, and Ben-Jonathan says this one was no exception. This finding has prompted Ben-Jonathan’s current research collaboration with surgeons performing gastric bypass surgery.  Tissue extracted from patients is being tested for prolactin levels in order to form hypotheses about this hormone’s role in obesity. 

“Nira is a delight to have in the department,” said Peter Stambrook, PhD, chairman of the Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy in the UC College of Medicine.  “Her science is remarkably creative and has taken her down numerous productive roads.  She has great instincts and great insights into scientific problems.”

Although Ben-Jonathan’s primary focus is neural-endocrinology, her research interests are continually expanding.  She has worked with researchers in the Department of Environmental Health to discover that a common component of the inner surface of food cans can actually mimic estrogen and alter the behavior and growth of cells in the reproductive tissues.  Her discovery of this component, Bisphenol A, prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to focus on its relationship to breast and ovarian cancer. 

Ben-Jonathan’s accomplishments prior to her work at UC are just as impressive.  While doing research as a post-doc in Dallas, Texas, she assisted in the discovery of dopamine, a regulator of the hormone prolactin.  Today, a dopamine-like drug is a major treatment for tumors of the pituitary.

For her research and natural teaching abilities, Dr. Ben-Jonathan has received uninterrupted funding for the last 30 years, but her accomplishments expand beyond this.  She is also a major contributor to the broader research community.  Ben-Jonathan has organized an international symposium, chaired National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientific review panels, chaired a Gordon Conference on prolactin, edited a book, contributed three chapters to a medical physiology textbook and published about 120 peer-reviewed papers.  Currently, she chairs the NIH study section for Endocrinology and Metabolism. 

“She has been a wonderful mentor to numerous students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists,” said Stambrook.  “They all leave her laboratory a richer person for having interacted with her.” 

Dr. Ben-Jonathan said she would not trade her job for anything.  Research conferences have allowed her to travel the globe.  She describes her field as one that is always evolving. 

“We move from descriptive, to mechanistic, to functional, and eventually the things that we do can be translated to drugs, treatment, diagnosis or prognosis of different endocrine problems,” said Ben-Jonathan.  “That’s the exciting thing.  We can see a transition from work in the laboratory to humans and how it can affect them.”

“In the department, Nira is always a ‘straight shooter,’ but she always speaks and acts with the best interests of the department in mind,” said Stambrook.  “My association with Nira over the past 10 plus years has been a pleasure.  She is a real friend.”

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