University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Danica Fujimori Receives $1.25M Bowes Biomedical Investigator Award

By Ariel Bleicher | | September 2, 2020

Danica Fujimori Receives $1.25M Bowes Biomedical Investigator Award

Danica Galonić Fujimori, PhD, studies how enzymes modify genetic material and other components of living cells. Photo by Susan Merrell

UC San Francisco chemical biologist Danica Galonić Fujimori, PhD, has been named this year’s Bowes Biomedical Investigator. The award provides unrestricted funding of $1.25 million over five years to support Fujimori’s teaching and leadership roles and advance her quest to understand life’s fundamental chemistry – research that could help solve some of the biggest challenges in health care, including cancer and antibiotic resistance.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Fujimori, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, a sought-out mentor to students, and an advocate for the advancement of minorities and women in basic science. “As a basic scientist, I’m grateful to UCSF for seeing the value in supporting fundamental discoveries that may be challenging or risky but that in the end will improve human lives.”

Fujimori studies how enzymes modify genetic material and other components of living cells. Enzymes are biological catalysts – they facilitate chemical reactions required to maintain the life and health of an organism. And their abilities are truly extraordinary: Enzymes often perform, in a single step, reactions that might take a human chemist many steps of mixing, heating, or otherwise coaxing together the right ingredients under the right conditions – if she can achieve the feat at all.

“Enzymes give us a treasure trove of amazing chemistry that is very difficult to execute,” Fujimori said. “My lab investigates this chemistry: How is it possible? How does it work? And most importantly, how can we use it to our advantage in order to stop disease?”

Take cancer, for instance. When scientists examine malignant cells, they often find that these cells generate certain enzymes in unusual forms or amounts. Fujimori’s team has zeroed in on a family of enzymes known as KDM5 demethylases, which show up in abundance in breast and prostate cancers. KDM5 enzymes are known as epigenetic regulators, meaning they control how genes are expressed.

Fujimori’s team wanted to know how KDM5 enzymes contribute to disease in cancer cells. By recreating and manipulating these enzymes in the lab, the team identified an important part of the enzymes’ structure that assists them in performing their regulatory work.

“This finding is very exciting because it gives us a target site that can be used to develop new cancer drugs,” Fujimori said. Such drugs might be able to stop KDM5 enzymes from promoting cancer growth by impairing this key target – like cutting power to a car’s ignition.