December 8, 2006

Investigator resurrects his cancer research at VUMC

Featured Image

Pelayo Correa, M.D., left, and members of his lab — from left, Violeta Sanchez, Barbara Schneider, Ph.D., Blanca Prazvelo, M.D., Liviu Sicinschi, M.D., Ph.D., Alberto Delgado and Constanza Cargo — relocated to Vanderbilt following Hurricane Katrina.
Photo by Susan Urmy

Investigator resurrects his cancer research at VUMC

Pelayo Correa, M.D., lost years worth of research materials at his Louisiana State University lab (background) to Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Photo by Vecihi Batuman, M.D.

Pelayo Correa, M.D., lost years worth of research materials at his Louisiana State University lab (background) to Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. Photo by Vecihi Batuman, M.D.

Pelayo Correa, M.D., had been collecting and researching stomach cancer for more than 20 years when Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters made their way into his lab at Louisiana State University, destroying decades of his work.

“My heart went to the floor. Most of my work from Colombia, South America, my biopsies, blood and serum were all in the building in the medical school,” said Correa. “I was in New Orleans close to 32 years. It also damaged my house.”

Correa's work was well-known here at Vanderbilt and his colleagues rallied to help the researcher make the move to Nashville and rebuild and resume his research here.

“Pelayo called me shortly after the hurricane ravaged New Orleans and was extremely concerned that he may not be able to continue his research,” said Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. “His work has had a profound impact and contributed to our understanding of the major cause of gastric cancer.

“I felt that we had to do everything possible to get him back into a laboratory as soon as possible so that he could maintain his research program and regain some momentum. He came to Nashville, joined the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the rest is history,” added DuBois.

Richard Peek Jr., M.D., chief of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, said it's an honor to have Correa and his research group at Vanderbilt.

“Dr. Correa's contributions to the field of gastric carcinogenesis are protean, as he was the first investigator to define histologic stages in the canonical progression to intestinal-type gastric adenocarcinoma, years prior to the discovery of H. pylori. His research portfolio will clearly complement and augment the repertoire of research that is currently being performed in our division.”

He has begun to pick up the pieces of his work on stomach cancer from his Light Hall home base, while making several trips back to Columbia, his homeland, to gather new samples.

“We have continued the work in Columbia. We still have the patients there and a lot of epidemiological data on them,” said Correa. “We have documentation on the evolution of each patient for 20 years or more.”

Correa's research focuses on the bacteria known to lead to stomach cancer, H. pylori. He said he's based most of his work out of Columbia because the population is at high-risk for developing the disease.

“The infection is spread from person to person in childhood. In many other countries we see very high rates in crowded spaces,” explained Correa. “This is the second leading cause of death from cancer worldwide; 50 percent of the population worldwide has the infection,” Correa noted.

Correa started a cancer registry in Cali, Colombia, in 1964, after a large internal migration that brought thousands of families from other parts of Colombia to the area. Thru the registry, Correa found that a region in the south of the Colombian Andes, Narino, had an exceptionally high incidence of gastric cancer.

The researcher is taking a closer look at how the infection leads to stomach cancer for some, but not all, as many people infected with H. pylori never develop stomach cancer. Correa's work in Tumaco, Colombia, documents this puzzling trend.

“They have a prevalence of infection just as high as that of the high gastric cancer risk population, starting also very early in childhood, but they do not develop gastric cancer,” said Correa.

“We are comparing the two populations and exploring the reasons for this intriguing discrepancy. If you understand how this is produced, you can understand how to prevent it.”

Correa said he is also studying whether antibiotics to kill H. pylori, in combination with the dietary supplements vitamin C and beta carotene, may reduce damage to the DNA of cells produced by the infection, and in turn, slow the progression or possibly cure the infection.

At Vanderbilt, Correa has been named the first holder of the Anne Potter Wilson Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. It was established in 2001 by David “Pat” Wilson in memory of his wife.