Carla Finkielstein, a cancer researcher and an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, will join the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC on July 1. Finkielstein, whose research focuses on the molecular basis of how circadian rhythms influence cancer initiation and progression, will move her research program and laboratory to the research institute.

“Dr. Finkielstein is an internationally recognized leader in the emerging field of chronotherapeutics. Her work on breast cancer has provided important new insights into how circadian rhythms impact tumor progression and the potential importance of time of day for administration of therapeutics,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “She is not only a passionate and innovative scientist, but she is also an equally dedicated teacher and mentor. We are delighted to welcome Dr. Finkielstein to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.”

Finkielstein is a founding member of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance (VTCRA) – a cohort of more than 25 research teams studying brain, breast, colon, lung, liver, and bone cancers in humans and animals. Together, VTCRA members have already accrued more than $5 million in cancer research funding, including grants from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

“Having Dr. Finkielstein’s research program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is an important part of Virginia Tech’s plan to grow its emphasis and investment in cancer research across the university, including on the Health Sciences and Technology Campus,” said Friedlander. “Working with the members of the VTCRA in Blacksburg and Roanoke, we have the opportunity to use highly interdisciplinary approaches to make fundamental discoveries, and to translate those discoveries to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer in people and in animals.”

Finkielstein will add to the rapidly growing cancer research community in Roanoke. Other cancer researchers to recently join the research institute include Jenny Munson, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, who studies interstitial flow and brain cancer; and Samy Lamouille, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute who is developing new strategies to target cancer stem cells therapeutically.

These teams will complement cancer care and research programs at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s new Animal Cancer Care and Research Center. Opening this month on the Health Sciences and Technology Campus, the center includes numerous veterinary oncologists, including interim director and assistant professor Joanne Tuohy, associate professor Nick Dervisis, and associate professor Shawna Klahn.

“What I really like about the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is the energy and creativity that is palpable among all in the institute,” said Finkielstein, who is also an affiliated faculty member in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and an associate professor in the department of surgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “The institute brings together basic and translational researchers examining disease from multiple angles, prime facilities, fantastic leadership, and collaborative health professionals; all of which will facilitate the implementation of our research findings into therapeutic applications.”

Finkielstein’s lab studies the molecular clocks that tell cells when it’s time to grow, divide, and die. Cells in our body have a predictable 24-hour cycle of division that is regulated by a mix of genetic and environmental cues, such as exposure to light, temperature, and hormone levels. At around sunset every day, freshly divided daughter cells undergo rigorous review, during which DNA replication is completed and an average of 20,000 daily mutations are repaired.

When a cell’s repair system is impaired, cancerous mutations accumulate – particularly if those mutations involve the network of genes that regulate cellular repair and tumor suppression. These mutations disrupt the clock mechanism that keeps cells running in a 24-hour cycle and, as a result, cell division occurs at unscheduled times throughout the day. Left unchecked, cancerous cells are permitted to grow and divide at their own pace, resulting in tumors.

In a series of studies by the Finkielstein lab, including a 2019 paper published in Science Signaling, her team reported the unexpected link between a key circadian protein responsible for keeping the cell’s molecular clock running, a tumor suppressor molecule that makes sure cells do not carry harmful mutations when they divide, and an oncogene that influences the speed of the cell’s clock. These findings emphasize the important relationship between the molecular circadian clock and key catalysts involved in cancer initiation and progression.

Finkielstein’s research offers a critical foundation for the emerging field of chronotherapeutics – the study of time-of-day medicine. This new discipline integrates the cellular and molecular biology of circadian rhythms to inform decision-making about when a therapeutic should be administered to yield the best results.

“By developing defined schedules so patients are administered treatment at a time-of-day likely to be more effective – for example, by delivering a drug at times when its target is active or present – then we will be able to reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapeutic compounds, enhance the drug’s efficacy, reduce side effects, and improve the overall quality of life of cancer patients,” Finkielstein said.

Although Finkielstein focuses on breast cancer, she said the basic concepts underlying her research can be applied to other cancers.

Finkielstein also has been a leader for Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 testing program through her work at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and in partnership with Harald Sontheimer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. As part of the move of her own cancer research operations to the research institute, she will also become the scientific director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory. In this capacity, she will lead Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 laboratory analysis program through Virginia Tech’s Schiffert Health Center, helping it expand and optimize its COVID-19 testing capacity and continuing to work in close collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health.

The Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory will be located in the new Fralin Biomedical Research Institute building at 4 Riverside Circle. This lab integrates the university’s existing COVID-19 test analysis facilities, which have the capacity to process up to 500 patient samples per day. Finkielstein said that the brand-new facilities, located in the research institute’s infectious disease wing, offer the space, equipment, and trained personnel necessary to continue scaling up the university’s testing operations.

“As we continue to partner with additional health districts in Virginia to process samples, we needed to consolidate our testing enterprises to help us optimize our work and deliver results in a timely manner,” Finkielstein said. “When the pandemic started spreading, I knew I needed to do something. This is my way of contributing something meaningful and tangible to society and our community in Southwest Virginia, so we can detect the virus rapidly, contain the disease, and prevent its spread.” 

Finkielstein joined Virginia Tech’s faculty as an assistant professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biology in 2005. Since then, she has trained more than 120 high school and undergraduate students, and has mentored numerous master’s and doctoral students at Virginia Tech.

“A tremendously important aspect of our job as scientists is to make sure we train the next generation of researchers to carry our research forward,” Finkielstein said. “Over the years I have been impressed by the ambition, energy, and commitment of students in the translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program, and being in Roanoke and closer to this cohort of graduate students is an added benefit for my lab.”

She received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and her doctoral degree in molecular biology from the University of Buenos Aires. She was a research associate at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s School of Medicine, where she worked at the interface of molecular and structural biology to study the mechanisms responsible for cellular DNA replication and cell division.

Finkielstein has received numerous awards, including the Virginia Academy of Science’s 2019 Shelton Horsley Research Award, and 2017 Mary Louise Olds Andrews Cancer Award; the Molecular Biology Society of Japan Research Award; an Appalachian Community Cancer Network Scholarship; an American Association for Cancer Research Minority Scholar Award in Cancer Research; a National Breast Cancer Coalition Scholarship; and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Finkielstein maintains her faculty position in the Department of Biological Sciences, and her affiliation with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.