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From an early age, they were both fascinated by science; he was amazed by advances in genetic engineering, and she was learning everything she could about plants. Fast forward to today, Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology and Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD, Assistant Professor of Immunology, are using their natural curiosity and drive to tackle the problem of cancer.

Pylayeva-Gupta is studying how to boost the immune system’s ability to respond and fight pancreatic cancer. Gupta is a physician-scientist working in the clinic and researching cancer genetics in the laboratory.

Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta PhD and Gaorav Gupta MD PhD
Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD, and Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, are planning a project that will combine their expertise in radiation, as well as immunotherapy.

Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD, and Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, are planning a project that will combine their expertise in radiation, biochemistry, and immunotherapy.

Pylayeva-Gupta was born in Azerbaijan and immigrated to the United States before college. She had a natural interest in problem solving, and cancer was the most complex problem she knew of in biology. Gupta grew up in Chicago and found his calling during a summer internship at the National Cancer Institute as an undergraduate studying at the University of Chicago.

They met during graduate school at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. After they completed their training, they accepted positions at UNC Lineberger because they found the cancer center valued all aspects of their research and offered a nurturing, collaborative environment.

“What they were primarily interested in was excellent cancer science, and they saw what we were doing and valued each of us independently,” Gupta said.

Gaorav’s work in breast cancer and HPV-linked head and neck cancer research

It was soon after they started dating in graduate school that Gupta had one of his biggest breakthroughs. Pylayeva-Gupta had left for a trip abroad, and Gupta worked into the early hours of the morning to distract himself from her absence.

While he was poring through his data, he discovered a set of breast cancer genes that can cause the cancer to metastasize, or spread. The findings were published in the prestigious journal Nature.

At UNC Lineberger, Gupta is working on an experimental blood test that’s shown promise for tracking HPV-linked head and neck cancer. He is also studying how DNA becomes abnormal and unstable in cancer.

“We’re beginning to unravel new ways in which DNA in cancer is altered, and I’m very excited about the prospect that this may lead to new opportunities to take advantage of those abnormalities for therapeutic benefit,” he said.

Read more from “Teaming up in the lab and in life: researchers make an impact on cancer science,” by Lineberger.