Interview With Christina Tzagarakis-Foster

Christina Tzagarakis-Foster began her academic career at the University of San Francisco as an undergraduate biology major, graduated in 1990, and returned in 2005 to teach the same topic. She also leads a group of students in promising breast cancer research.

Q: What is it like being a faculty member at your alma mater?
A: It is so wonderful! As an undergraduate student at USF, I had such an amazing experience. My professors, the courses, the environment—it all stimulated me to pursue a career in biological research and teaching. It is great to be able to come back and try to affect my students in the same way.

Q: How did you decide to focus on breast cancer as a research topic?
A: When I started my post-doctoral fellowship and joined the lab of Dale Leitman at UCSF in 1999, I decided to make the move to the breast cancer field. The approach in the lab was to take what was known at the clinical level and delve deeper to understand the mechanism at the molecular level. I am intrigued by the field in so many ways, but perhaps what fascinates me the most is how sometimes only very slight changes in the cell can result in a change from “normal” state to a “tumorigenic” state. That these changes at the molecular level have such a profound result is intriguing.

Q: What aspect of breast cancer does your research focus on?
A: Our research investigates how gene expression is changed in a breast cancer cell compared to a normal breast cell. We are specifically examining a protein called DAX-1 and how it interacts with very key proteins in the cell, such as estrogen receptor (which binds the hormone estrogen), to result in the changes in gene expression and give rise to tumorigenesis (the production of tumors).

Q: Why is this area of cancer research so crucial?
A: Breast cancer is the number two cause of cancer deaths in females in the United States. Most of us know someone whose life has been affected by breast cancer. Although there are existing therapies that currently help treat breast cancer patients, we still are striving for better, safer, and more efficacious therapies. I hope our research will play a role in understanding the molecular mechanisms that drive breast cancer and lead to the development of these future therapies.