Juanita L. Merchant, MD, PhD, Appointed Interim Associate Director for Basic Sciences

Friday, August 20, 2021

As a basic scientist and clinician, Dr. Merchant brings unique perspective to the role, and hopes to cultivate bench-to-bedside translation at the UArizona Cancer Center.

Juanita L. Merchant, MD, PhD, a renowned physician-scientist of gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, has been appointed interim associate director for basic sciences at the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

Dr. Merchant joined the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson in 2018 as professor of medicine and chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology as well as member of the cancer biology research program at the UArizona Cancer Center.

Dr. Merchant’s research focuses on molecular mechanisms of normal and pre-cancerous cell growth in the GI tract. An ongoing area of research is how chronic inflammation, such as from Helicobacter infection, sets the stage for gastric cancer through changes in the gut. Prior to joining the University, Dr. Merchant was a University of Michigan faculty member since 1991.

“In coming here, I was excited to have my lab embedded in the Cancer Center,” said Dr. Merchant. “I love being elbow to elbow with the Cancer Center faculty and oncologists because it catalyzes translation of discoveries to the clinic a lot faster.” 

For example, Dr. Merchant spearheaded a new GI biorepository of samples from consenting patients undergoing endoscopy. Called the Tissue Acquisition Repository for Gastrointestinal and HEpaTic Systems (TARGHETS), data from the samples can be used in a range of studies to spark new discoveries and supplement samples collected from patients with GI cancers. This allows researchers the potential to follow changes in the GI of patients before developing cancer, at diagnosis and after treatment.

TARGHETS is collaborating with the “BioDroid” program, led by Cancer Center research member and Shared Resource Director Yana Zavros, PhD, to create miniature organs called organoids in the lab. The TARGHETS biorepository is also unique in having high participation and contributions from Hispanic and Native American patients, which helps to ensure that fundamental findings are translatable to the Cancer Center’s catchment.

“Dr. Merchant has had an incredible career of novel findings,” said Joann Sweasy, PhD, Nancy C. and Craig M. Berge Endowed Chair and Director of the UArizona Cancer Center director. “With a foot in both the clinic and the lab, she’s a perfect fit to promote basic sciences at the Cancer Center and she's passionate about educating the next generation of cancer researchers. We are so lucky to have her.”

Dr. Merchant’s outstanding mentorship was recognized with the 2020 Distinguished Mentor Award from the American Gastroenterological Association. In her role as interim associate director for basic sciences, Dr. Merchant will work across the Cancer Center’s established research programs: cancer biology, clinical and translational oncology and cancer prevention and control.

“I see opportunities to strengthen our basic sciences programs and connect them with our strong clinical research teams to advance more investigator-initiated trials,” said Dr. Merchant. “As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, it is critical that discoveries coming out of the labs here at the University of Arizona move into the clinic and benefit patients at the Cancer Center.”