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Link between bench to bedside is personal for GSBS class speaker Jose Mercado-Matos

Graduating MD/PhD candidate inspired by late brother who died of cancer

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

May 28, 2019
Jose Mercado-Matos

When Jose Mercado-Matos graduates with an MD/PhD degree at the 46th Commencement of UMass Medical School on Sunday, June 2, it will be the culmination of a long journey inspired by his older brother, Raul, who died of synovial sarcoma at age 25. Mercado-Matos will serve as class speaker for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Raul endured the effects of cancer and treatments for three years before succumbing to the disease.

“We were told many times that there was nothing to be done. This made me change my focus to medicine and science,” said Mercado-Matos, who was 17 and a college freshman at the University of Puerto Rico San Juan when his brother was diagnosed. “I wanted to do the research and be at the bedside to be able to work with patients who are going through struggles like that. Through that experience I was able to appreciate the value of basic science research in the way we advance medicine.”

After receiving his undergrad degree, he was accepted into a post-baccalaureate program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., working in the National Cancer Institute under Phillip A. Dennis, MD, PhD, for two years doing cancer research. He described being homesick for his parents and sister, Marilis, in Puerto Rico, but pressed on, in search of an MD/PhD program where he could focus on his training and be part of a community.

“UMass Medical School had a sense of community right away,” he said. “I was looking at a place where I’d be for up to 10 years and I wanted to feel like I was at a place that had a sense of part of a community, not just a place to do my training.”

It also helped that his uncle, Father Angel Matos, was a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Worcester. During his PhD training, Mercado-Matos worked in the lab of Leslie M Shaw, PhD, associate professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology.

“Jose has a big personality and he brought a positive energy to my lab that was contagious to all around him,” Dr. Shaw said. “He has the intellect, motivation and compassion to be an outstanding physician-scientist and I am excited to see what he will achieve in the future.”

Mercado-Matos researched metastatic disease as it relates to breast cancer and tried to understand how cancer cells leave their primary tumor and become metastatic. His research focused on one protein, insulin receptor substrate 2 or IRS2, and how it contributes to the ability of cells to become invasive. The results of his work appear in JBC Journal, the journal of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Molecular and Cellular Biology, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

“Through my work we were able to discover that there is one region in this protein that contributes to the ability of cells to become invasive. If you get rid of it, cells do not become invasive,” he said. “The idea is that in the future we can develop further ways to target this region in the protein without disrupting its ability to regulate important metabolic functions. We don’t want to disrupt their metabolic functions, but we want to disrupt their ability to regulate tumor cell invasion. And hopefully, in a way, that will help us to prevent metastasis from taking place.”

Mercado-Matos decided in this third year that he would focus on surgery in the medical school, specifically surgical oncology. He matched in general surgery at UMass Medical School–UMass Memorial Medical Center.

“Surgery is technically and intellectually challenging, but it can provide a wealth of information for research. Cancer surgeons are the ones who see the tumors; they see how the disease manifests in the human body. This knowledge can inform my research,” he said.

He credits Mitchell A. Cahan, MD, associate professor of surgery; James E. Carroll Jr., MD, assistant professor of surgery; and Philip A. Cohen, MD, assistant professor of surgery, with inspiring him to pursue a career as a surgeon-scientist.

“I think sometimes when you interact with people who are passionate about their work it inspires you and I found that inspiration for patient care with them,” he said.

If he could predict where he’d be in 10 years, Mercado-Matos said he’d like to be working at an academic medical center as a surgeon and conducting biomedical research.

“I’m one who believes that I’m here because so many people supported me, took the time to teach me properly, and I want to pay that forward. We need good, passionate educators to motivate the next generation of physicians and scientists,” he said.