Dr. Dorothy Contiguglia-Akcan—assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine who specializes in family medicine and travel health—was recently accepted to the Harvard Career Development Program in Translational Glycobiology (ProTG), a prestigious career development program.
As a Harvard ProTG scholar, Dr. Contiguglia-Akcan will help conduct research focused on understanding how sugars work in the body during health and disease and translating that knowledge into medications that can help people who are suffering from a wide variety of medical conditions, including autoimmune disease, cancer and infections.
Translational is the process of taking technical research that is often removed from real world application and “translating” it into something, a medication or device, which can be actually used to improve the lives of people, especially sick people.
Glycobiology is the study of the biology of sugars.
“Sugars, until somewhat recently, have been the unsung heroes of biology. Now, we know that they are very important for many vital processes in the body,” Dr. Contiguglia-Akcan says. “One example is inflammation, a process which must occur for us to heal after infection or injury. Sugars on the surfaces of white blood cells are responsible for helping those cells to find (home to) sites of inflammation and damage so they can play a part in healing.”
She will be studying the glycobiology of stem cell exosomes, which are small packets of cellular molecules that can be sent out by a cell in order to signal to its neighboring cells.
“These signals can sometimes help nearby cells with the healing process, when damage or sickness has occurred,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is to attempt to engineer sugars on the surfaces of stem cell exosomes, so that they can home to sites of inflammation in order to support healing when damage has occurred, such as after a heart attack.”
Dr. Contiguglia-Akcan’s journey to the medical field began as a child. Interested in science from a young age, she realized she wanted to use her “science powers” to help people. She was thus drawn to study medicine and public health, where the processes of science and helping people converge.
Within the wide scope of practices she could specialize in, “family medicine was a natural home, because it covers such a broad realm of wellness and illness that I could never get bored, she says.
“Travel medicine was a further extension of my interests into infectious diseases and global health. When practicing travel health, I get to use my doctor hat to manage travel-related medical conditions, as well as put on my public health hat to help prevent them.”
Her desire to help people also extends to her activities outside of work. She is a member of the FIU-FAST (Florida Advanced Surgical Transport) Team, an all-volunteer group of elite, highly trained and experienced medical professionals who can quickly mobilize and be ready to deploy to disaster areas anywhere in the world. The team sets up a tent that can house up to 10 intensive care unit-level beds and can handle anything from a sniffle to respiratory failure.
“The team members are a fantastic group of people to work with, and I get to practice medicine in a unique environment. I like the change in pace and context,” she says.
After graduating from Tulane University School of Medicine, Dr. Contiguglia-Akcan came to Miami to complete her family medicine residency at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. A Panther since 2016, she enjoys working at FIU’s primary care practice on campus. She's also an affiliate of the FIU Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.
“Many of my patients are faculty, staff, and students of FIU, and I often feel like the proverbial “village doctor,” keeping our village of Panthers healthy.”