When Cells Talk to One Another, Prof. Christina Zito Listens
When Cells Talk to One Another, Prof. Christina Zito Listens

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

When biology and environmental science lecturer Christina Zito was just five years old, she told her uncle she was going to be a scientist and find a cure for cancer. It was a big dream for a kindergartner, but it was one she held on to throughout her educational pursuits.

Her uncle still reminds her of that statement, and today she continues to chase that dream. She teaches in the graduate program in cellular and molecular biology, and her research centers on cells and the ways they communicate with one another.

Prof. Christina Zito

The cells talk and, in essence, Zito listens.

“I study signaling pathways,” she said. “Signals come in from outside the cell and that can result in some sort of change inside the cell. My focus is cancer, but I’m actually interested in other processes as well. Anything you learn in a cancer cell is usually applicable to all sorts of other systems. For example, some of my work involves studying how cancer causes muscle cells to degenerate, and that is related to other diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy.”

Zito and Bharath Sreekumar, a graduate student, are studying how muscle cells communicate with cancer cells, and whether those cells affect the breast cancer cell in particular and make it more aggressive.

This is one of a number of cell signaling projects Zito and her graduate students will work on this semester, focusing on the communication pathways between and within cancer cells and their environment that regulate cancer cell growth and metastasis.

While she knew from a young age that she would study science, it was here at UNH that Zito further crystalized her career plans. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and was working in a lab at Yale with a doctor who was studying ovarian cancer and working to develop better ways to diagnose the cancer earlier.

Zito decided to take a class in cancer signaling pathways with Joan Levy, an adjunct instructor of biology at UNH. “I loved the class,” she said. “It just opened this whole new world for me.”

She took more courses at UNH with Michael Rossi, professor of biology and environmental science. He encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D., which she did, receiving her degree at Yale University. She returned to UNH to teach, and the professors who inspired and mentored her are now her colleagues. 

For four years, she’s been part of a growing and thriving department, “where students have great opportunities to do research and be mentored by faculty members who are deeply involved in research,” she said. Because students in the graduate program work on research for only one to two years, their projects must be extremely focused.

“Our students are well poised to succeed in a Ph.D. program, because they have extra years and extra experience, which makes them attractive,” Zito said.

When she started at the University of New Haven, her focus was teaching, but Rossi and Eva Sapi, associate professor of biology and environmental science, encouraged her to dive back into research. Zito said she loves teaching, but she is equally thrilled to be spending time in the lab again.

Zito’s cancer and cell research “is at the very beginning phases,” she said. “We’re getting everything up and going, making sure our model systems work and that our ideas are pointing us in the right direction.” It’s a slow-going process. “With cancer, it’s become apparent that every single cancer is different. Understanding the different ways to target cancers is very important; you have to tailor treatment to the individual.”

Her goal is to find new targets for anti-cancer therapy, the same hope she had when she was just a child. She smiles when talking about it now, because she didn’t come from a family of scientists. “I’m not sure where the idea originally came from,” she said. In fact, she was the first in her family to attain a college degree.

But the quest, a collaborative one with her students and colleagues, continues to energize her. “Understanding what happens inside the cell at the molecular level is what I’m interested in,” she said. “The possibilities are limitless.”

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