About Luisel Ricks-Santi
Dr. Luisel Ricks-Santi is a cancer genomics researcher and population scientist possessing over 15 years of academic research experience. She is committed to diversity & inclusion through research education and training and is particularly adept in the areas of grantsmanship, organizational leadership, clinical-translational methods and transdisciplinary team science approaches.
Dr. Ricks-Santi is a 2000 graduate of Hampton University where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Cellular and Molecular biology. She also received her PhD from Georgetown University in Tumor Biology and completed two post-doctoral fellowships at Howard University in Cancer Genomics/ Cancer Disparities research, and Clinical-Translational Sciences. Her current research aims to identify the genetic drivers of cancer disparities with a focus on the breast and prostate cancer, two (2) cancers with high mortality rates in the African American community.
In her spare time, Dr. Ricks has been using her cancer biology background in service to her community by educating about cancer screening recommendations, participation in clinical trials and engaging diverse communities precision medicine research. Interacting directly with the community has inspired her to become a greater advocate for cancer screening especially in communities where cancer incidence and mortality is high.
She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and the The Links, Inc., organizations dedicated to the implementation of programs that impact health disparities in the global community.
Areas of Expertise Cancer Epidemiologist | Population Sciences | Genomics | Genetic Epidemiology | Precision Medicine | Clinical-Translational Medicine | Next Generation Sequencing | Microbiome | Bioinformatics | Biostatistics | Epidemiology | Biospecimen Science |Cancer Genetics & Genomics | Public Health Genomics | Molecular Biology | Health Disparities | Cancer Disparities | STEM Education in Minorities and Women
Specialist in Molecular Biology, SMBAmerican Society for Clinical Pathology
My expertise include 1) Genetic Epidemiology, 2) Breast and Prostate Cancer Genomics and 3) Biospecimen Science with a focus on Population Science and Health Disparities Research.
Breast Cancer Genomics and Cancer Disparities research: African American (AA) women are more likely receive an inconclusive genetics test diminishing the utility and impact of genetics and precision medicine technologies on cancer management and prevention. In fact, actionable mutations are found less frequently in women of African descent. “Actionable” mutations are mutations whose phenotype would result in specific, defined medical recommendation(s) and allow the proper deployment of risk reduction strategies such as early detection, prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, and lifestyle modifications. Additionally, with the high prevalence of variants of unknown significance (VUSs) in the population, additional research is warranted to determine the functional consequences of VUSs. I am currently expanding our previous research, which identified 29 BRCA VUSs in 30 high-risk families thought to have meaningful clinical significance in treatment strategies. Using CRISPR we are determining the functional significance of novel variants comparing wild-type parental cell lines to genetically edited, derived cell lines. The functionalization of VUSs using CRISPR will allow for improved risk prediction, improved tumor targeting and thus, improved outcomes in a population not well represented in genomic studies and disproportionately affected by VUSs. Our overall hypothesis is that African American breast cancer patients have a unique genetic profile not currently represented in commercially available genetic tests that could be readily discovered in our distinctive family-case-control study. We also hypothesize that VUSs in actionable genes, especially those that hypothetically alter the function of the gene leading to changes in tumor cell behavior, could be characterized using novel tools such as CRISPR. Specifically we are: 1) prioritizing, characterizing, and validating novel and genetic variants of unknown significance and determining their association with BCa risk in AAs; and 2) using CRISPR-Cas9 editing to determine the functional consequences of VUSs in actionable DNA-repair pathways overrepresented in African American breast cancer cases. The lack of research in under-represented health disparity populations, such as AAs, hampers efforts to reduce and eliminate BCa disparities. This research will allow us to improve the understanding of genetic indicators that may confer risk for developing BCa. This research will also help promote the development of burgeoning student scientists within an interdisciplinary team committed to the development of precision medicine strategies to reduce BCa disease burden in African Americans.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer and Cancer Disparities Research: There is also a need to determine why African American women are more likely to be diagnosed with Breast Cancer (BCa) at younger ages, tend to have more aggressive forms and have lower survival rates. Triple negative breast cancer, which is highly aggressive, associated with germ-line mutations and resistant to endocrine treatment, is also disparately represented in African Americans. The overall hypothesis is that there are a unique set of somatically mutated genes driving disparities in breast tumor grade, hormone receptor negativity, tumor subtype (i.e triple negative vs. luminal) and thus, recurrence and overall survival outcomes. Genomic profiling of primary tumors and their concomitant normal tissue has provided critical information regarding tumorigenesis in the group.
Prostate Cancer Genomics: The treatment of PCa is currently under great scrutiny given the recent findings that treatment for localized PCa does not improve survival outcomes. Additionally, treatment is associated with increased side-effects such as urinary and bowel incontinence, sexual impotence and, in some cases, death; these side-effects negatively affect quality of life in PCa survivors. However, besides PSA, staging and grading of PCa, there is currently little guidance on who warrants immediate and aggressive treatment versus who will benefit from active surveillance. This is particularly important for men of African descent, who have a 75-80% higher risk of developing PCa and are 2.4 times more likely to die of the disease. African American (AA) men, on average, have higher Gleason scores and tumor volume than their Caucasian counterparts with similar pre-op statistics making active surveillance highly controversial in the group. Therefore, improved molecular methods are warranted for distinguishing indolent tumors that may benefit from active surveillance from aggressive, lethal tumors that should be treated, with a focus on improving their utilization in men of African descent. Molecular analysis of PCa tumors have resulted in the identification of genomic markers associated with outcomes and several groups have attempted to develop genomic profiles that can predict PCa aggressiveness. However, previously developed genomic panels that predict PCa aggressiveness and progression are generally based on PCa tumors from patients of European Americans. Therefore the applicability and utility of these genomic panels in tumors from men of African descent remains unknown. The long-term objective of our research is to develop a novel panel of genomic markers that can distinguish indolent from aggressive disease and to deploy the panel and ensure its clinical validity in diverse populations.
Cancer Epidemiology: Characterizing locality cancer profiles are essential to addressing barriers in cancer care. A successful strategy to addressing barriers in care is analyzing local and state tumor registry data. While in Washington, DC and Virginia, I managed to successfully acquire tumor registry data and identify cancer mortality “hot-spots” using epidemiological methods, which have been used to improve the allocation of resources like genetic counseling services and genomic tool utilization. The goal of this research is to leverage population-based cancer registry data to study health disparities, improve the translation of genomic technologies for the diagnosis, prognostication and management of cancer in patients, collaborate with physicians and facilitate discussions of patients with all types of cancer whose tumors have been analyzed with advanced genomic diagnostic tests and enable the translation of strong science into recommendations for individual patient treatments.
Research Education: Throughout my career, I have also been heavily engaged in the mentoring and training of underrepresented minorities in research. In addition to my research in cancer genomics, I am interested in improving research education, training, and research experiences with a focus on increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in biomedical research. To date, I have mentored over 50 students, most of which are currently in medical school or in pre-doctoral programs. Currently, I serve as a mentor and advisor for students in the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE), where I implemented a research-and inquiry-based course that prepared students for summer internships. I also developed and implemented a tiered student training program titled the “S.E.N.S.E.I.” program (Shadow, ENgage, Support, and Experience Independence) which improved the overall training of students in research and saw an increased number of students pursuing research careers.