Debanjan Dhar looks at links among liver cancer, heart health and kidney function

Debanjan Dhar profile photo
Debanjan Dhar, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys. He focuses on liver cancer and its connection to metabolic disorders including metabolic-associated steatohepatitis (MASH).

New Sanford Burnham Prebys scientist listens to the constant communication among these organs to find treatments that benefit all three

Debanjan Dhar, Ph.D., was drawn to science from a young age due to an innate curiosity about how things work and how diseases develop. He was determined to apply his interest in research to benefit cancer patients after seeing his family members and their physicians struggle when his grandmother was diagnosed with the disease.

“My grandmother suffered from liver cancer, and basically people were helpless—there were no treatments,” says Dhar. “Looking beyond my own story, it’s very difficult to find someone whose family or friends have not experienced the pain of cancer either directly or indirectly.

As an associate professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, Dhar will focus specifically on liver cancer.

“Even though the advent of hepatitis B and C vaccines reduced two of the major risk factors for liver cancer, the incidence of liver cancer due to metabolic disorders has increased,” says Dhar. “And even as the overall trend of the incidence of most cancers has gone down, liver cancer remains on the rise.”

Dhar focuses on how lifestyle factors such as high-calorie diets, excessive alcohol consumption and minimal exercise—along with genetic predispositions—can lead to problematic changes in the liver, heart and kidneys. Specifically in the liver, growing deposits of fat in the tissue can lead over time to chronic inflammation and the accumulation of thickened scar tissue, a condition known as metabolic-associated steatohepatitis (MASH).

MASH is the second-leading cause of liver transplantation and a major risk factor for liver cancer. Dhar says that it is also important to look beyond the liver to better understand MASH and its implications.

“The liver is not an isolated organ, as it is constantly communicating with all these different tissues,” says Dhar. “For example, there might be certain signals from the liver going into the bloodstream that may be affecting the cardiovascular system, and we just don’t have the full picture yet.”

By studying the conversation among the liver, the immune system, heart and kidneys, Dhar hopes to discover signals that could be used to detect MASH and liver cancer much earlier, when they’re easier to treat.

“Too often, liver cancer is diagnosed at a very aggressive stage, and patients don’t have many options. If we can identify a good noninvasive biomarker that can be checked with a sample of blood, we can enroll patients in a treatment plan much earlier.”

Dhar’s goals extend from improving diagnoses to expanding treatments available to patients and their physicians. He believes that the opportunity to collaborate with the faculty at Sanford Burnham Prebys—and especially with members of the NCI-designated Cancer Center and Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics—will help him translate his laboratory findings to benefit patients.

“During my postdoctoral fellowship, I was supported by the American Liver Foundation and had a chance to meet with cancer survivors. It was really inspirational, as I could see the real-world effect of scientific discoveries on people’s lives. I truly want to see what I work on reach patients who need new diagnostics and better treatments.”

Dhar’s contributions have garnered prestigious awards such as the American Liver Foundation’s Liver Scholar Award and CureSearch for Children’s Cancer’s Young Investigator Award. Dhar’s current research is supported by two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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