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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Marygorret Obonyo

Associate Professor, University of California

San Diego School of Medicine

Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with more than one million new cases and approximately 841,000 deaths annually worldwide. In the U.S., Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the disease. Dr. Obonyo studies a pathogen called Helicobacter pylori, which is a cause of gastric cancer and is present in the stomachs of 50% of all people and 90% of people from her native Kenya. Her lab is studying novel ways to identify genes that increase the risk of gastric cancer and treatments that could be effective before the cancer reaches the terminal stage. 

"We say, ‘Let’s try it. Who knows? This could work.’”

- Dr. Marygorret Obonyo

Dr. Marygorret Obonyo Finds News Ways to Tackle Gastric Cancer

Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with more than one million new cases and approximately 841,000 deaths annually worldwide. In the U.S., Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics suffer disproportionately. Dr. Marygorret Obonyo, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, studies a pathogen called Helicobacter pylori, which is present in the stomachs of 50 percent of all people across the world and 90 percent of people from her native Kenya. H. pylori colonizes the stomach and can cause anything from simple upset stomachs to deadly gastric cancer. Her lab is studying new ways to identify genes that may cause gastric cancer and to develop treatments that could be effective before the cancer reaches its latter stages.   

She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 

Like many of the recipients of the Prebys Research Heroes award, Dr. Obonyo’s journey was intensely personal. In Kenya, she was struck by the suffering of animals from tick infestations, leading her to study animal science at the University of Minnesota. After college, she got a job in a lab working with Borrelia burgdorferi, the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. Dr. Obonyo shrugs, “I thought, okay, at least there are ticks involved.”  

Her background in animal science proved extremely valuable. She came to San Diego as a postdoc and connected with a researcher working on H. pylori. She became interested in the pathogen and soon applied for her own grant, which required her to figure out how to grow the bacteria in the lab and establish a Helicobacter infection model, a challenge that had proven difficult for her colleagues.    

Dr. Obonyo’s pioneering model allows for rapid development and progression of disease that is detectable as early as three months, where it previously would take upwards of two years with the standard gastric cancer model. This model, therefore, offers a promising avenue for studying early-stage treatments and identifying common genes between animals and humans. With a disease that often does not produce symptoms until it reaches a fatal stage, Dr. Obonyo’s work is vital to increasing the options for early detection in patients. It is not easy work, and most of her job is spent thinking about new ways to solve old problems. In her words, “We say, ‘Let’s try it. Who knows? This could work.’” 

Though the subject matter of her studies is sobering, Dr. Obonyo’s enthusiasm is relentless and infectious. Fueled by the potential to make a significant impact on human health by finding treatments for gastric cancer, she remains positive that her tireless efforts will change the outcome of this lethal disease.  

However, securing funding for high-risk aspects of her research remains a challenge. Her vision for treatments that are more tailored to individual patients underscores the need for a paradigm shift in current treatment approaches, where a one-size-fits-all approach often prevails.  While Dr. Obonyo has received some NIH funding, her work is considered extremely high risk. The Prebys Research Heroes grant was created to allow researchers to pursue strategies that other more conservative institutions might not support. “This gives me some room to breathe,” she says with a smile.  

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