Please tell us about yourself

Dr. Shivani Ruparel is currently an assistant professor at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s in microbiology in India.

“I was exposed to research during my master’s program which is when I realized that I liked it and is feasible for me to make a career out of it,” Dr. Ruparel said.

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Following her passion, she came to the United States to attend the Cellular and Structural Biology Ph.D. program at UTHSCSA in 2003.

While she was a graduate student, she studied the role of telomerase in prostate cancer under the guidance of Dr. Robert Marciniak and Dr. Linda deGraffenried. Telomerase is traditionally known for its role in telomere elongation in cancer cells that enables these cells to replicate indefinitely.

“I was always interested in working on cancer as a disease and was always intrigued to know that these cells had a unique capacity to not only grow indefinitely and attack our bodies but also to become resistant to treatment over time,” she explained.

How/why did you enter the field of pain?

The project gave her extensive training in cell and molecular biology and after obtaining her doctoral degree, she pursued a post-doc under the guidance of Dr. Kenneth Hargreaves, chair of the Department of Endodontics at UTHSCSA.

“Since science today is more of an interdisciplinary subject, I wanted to expand my knowledge by pursuing something I hadn’t had training in during my graduate school,” she said. I thought that neuroscience is a field that encompasses many other disciplines of science into one.”

“I therefore wanted to join a neuroscience-based lab for my postdoctoral fellowship to get a broader perspective of basic science, she said. “Dr. Hargreaves is a well-known scientist in the field of pain and neuroscience research and therefore I decided to pursue my fellowship with him.”

During the second year of her post-doctoral fellowship, Dr. Hargreaves offered her a faculty position in the department and she was officially appointed as an assistant professor at the end of the third year of her fellowship.

“My post-doctoral fellowship provided me with the theoretical and practical knowledge of many subjects such as neuroscience, physiology, and anatomy which are skills that I am able to incorporate into my research today,” she said.

I entered the field of pain after my doctoral degree, during my postdoctoral fellowship. I entered the field of pain for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to get an interdisciplinary training in science. My doctoral training was in cancer biology where I learned the molecular and cellular systems. Doing a fellowship in the pain field taught me completely new techniques, as well as neuroscience, which I was not exposed to before.
  2. While I was still interested in the field of cancer, I realized that cancer patients are in a lot of pain due to a variety of reasons and I figured knowing the pain field would complement my doctoral training and allow me to combine the two as an independent researcher in the future.

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What did you study?

I did my Bachelor of Science (BS) and Master of Science (MS) in Microbiology from University of Mumbai, PhD in Cellular and Structural Biology from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a Masters in Clinical Investigation from  The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Why do you work in pain? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Pain is a symptom that every single person in this world experiences, be it acute or chronic. Therefore, for someone who wished to pursue independent research, wanting to have the knowledge of pain mechanisms was obvious to me as it directly applies and relates to everyone around you.

Tell us about your work

Pain is the first and most significant symptom of oral cancer, with patients experiencing serious pain even if their tumors are quite small. In response to this, researcher Shivani Ruparel from the UT Health Science Center San Antonio was awarded a $144,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to assess the phenomenon of oral cancer pain. This grant is one of 100 dedicated to national research and training that represent over $45.6 million invested by the ACS this year alone.

“Pain is the very first and top symptom among 70 percent to 80 percent of oral cancer patients,” explained Dr. Ruparel, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics, which is part of the School of Dentistry. Thanks to her research project, Dr. Ruparel believes she can find an approach to block pain at the specific location of the tumor.

“Current treatments for oral cancer pain are not very effective and there are problems with side effects. What is worse is that oral cancer patients become tolerant to the dosage of the current pain medications very quickly, and therefore, require a lot more of it to achieve relief,” she added.

To improve treatments for oral cancer pain, Dr. Ruparel explained that “It is crucial to understand how oral cancer produces pain.” Her research focuses on studying cancer pain mechanisms in order to develop novel treatment options.

In previous research projects, Ruparel proved that oral cancer tumors free specific fat molecules that serve as messengers to communicate pain to the brain. After their release, they go through a pain-sensing channel in the surrounding nerves. After being received, the message is transmitted thanks to the nervous system sending messages to the brain.

Ruparel and her team will assess the production mechanism of these fat molecules that result from human oral cancer cells and will test new FDA-approved drugs that might inhibit such process so that pain is minimized.

“The goal is to develop analgesics that are equally or more effective than current medications but with much fewer side effects, to significantly improve the quality of life for oral cancer patients,” explained Ruparel. A rodent model will be used and, if successful, human trials will be prepared as well.

How has being a Future Leaders recipient transformed your career?

Receiving the future research award during my postdoctoral fellowship provided me with several perks:

  • It gave me an experience of how to efficiently manage research funds, as this was my very first secured funding in my career.
  • It allowed me to expedite my research project due to the additional funds that I could use to collaborate with others.
  • It allowed me to meet with several experts in the field and introduce myself as an upcoming scientist as well as receive input about securing future National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding.

All of the above experiences helped me build my scientific network, secure R01 funding within 3.5 years of my faculty appointment, and manage the funds productively and efficiently. I am very thankful to APS for this award.

What is your favorite part of your work, and why?

My favorite part of my job is that everyday is different. The best part of research is that it never gets monotonous. Another good part of being a researcher is that you have ample opportunities for stimulating conversations with a variety of people including other faculty, trainees, and even staff. Like I always say, “research is like solving a big giant puzzle.”

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

I think the biggest challenge of my job is maintaining enough funding for my research as well as my employees’ salaries. I am sure this is the biggest challenge for many academicians.