Researcher Lands UT

Few people actually understand the research that Dr. Michael Carastro is conducting in the farthest corner of Plant Hall’s Science Wing.

Fortunately for Carastro, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute read him loud and clear and have awarded him the first NIH/NCI grant in University of Tampa history.

The goal is to understand defects in the vitamin D receptor, a problem that can significantly increase a person’s risk of certain cancers. Carastro’s aim is to determine the root of this mutation and to ultimately create a plan to not only treat the cancer, but also to reduce the risk of developing a tumor.

‘If we can identify the people who have this defect, we can adopt strategies to reduce their risk,’ he said. ‘If we know the mechanism of action at a molecular level, it will help identify strategies to treat or prevent.’

Vitamin D receptor disparities are found at higher rates among African American populations, a problem this study hopes to attack.

Carastro’s work is under the umbrella of Dr. Robin Wilson at the Penn State College of Medicine, where he did his postdoctoral work on oncology (the study of cancers) and pharmacology (the study of drug action).

After graduating from UT in 1994, Carastro earned his Ph.D in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Miami School of Medicine.

This study, he said, was attractive to NIH/NCI because it identifies a number of so-called merge areas ‘- molecular researchers working with clinical researchers working with population researchers.

The grant, what the NIH/NCI call a K-series grant, is a three-year, $150,000 allocation.

‘UT has been awarded National Science Foundation grants in the past,’ said Dr. Steve Kucera, interim dean of the college of natural and health sciences, ‘but never one of this magnitude.’

‘It was outstanding news that the research grant proposal of Dr. Carastro, in which he is co-principal investigator, had been funded by NIH,’ Kucera said. ‘The grant proposal review process at NIH is highly competitive and his project being funded is testament to the quality of the science he proposed, and is now funded, to pursue in his research lab in the Science Wing. This award will be especially beneficial to the UT undergraduates he involves in his work and is in perfect alignment with the mission of our college.’

The Future

K-series grants, like the one awarded to UT, are starter grants. The idea is to show meritorious research and progress and to tap into millions in federal funds.

Carastro hopes to land an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) Grant, which is specifically designed for institutions like UT that are mostly undergraduate. The goal is to employ students before they graduate, and to give them real world experience.

For now, six months into the vitamin D receptor research, the focus is to finish strong and identify the problem areas.

The Science of It All

It doesn’t take a Ph. D in molecular biology and biochemistry to understand the work Carastro is doing. It helps, but it’s not necessary.

Essentially, vitamin D is a key piece of the pathway to cancer prevention. The mutation being studied is the ‘M1T’ change, which makes the translation of DNA start later than normal because a methionine is transposed with a threonine.

The result? Since methionine signals parts of the cell to start translation, everything goes haywire. Ultimately, the vitamin D receptor fails to signal when it binds to vitamin D.

The problem? Vitamin D is usually pretty good for the body.

‘There were findings in 2006 by the American Association of Cancer Research where they increased the vitamin D levels to the highest safe levels,’ Carastro said. ‘They reduced the breast cancer risk by 50 percent.’

The research involves a lot of expensive, complicated machinery, which Carastro has in his first-floor lab of the Science Wing.He works late at night, often oblivious to the clock and anyone walking by, as he sings loudly while pressed up against his bench.

‘It’s like a gambling addition or me,’ he said. ‘The freedom to follow up on any scientific question is extremely attractive.’

Peter Arrabal can be reached at

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