As a young man growing up in Puerto Rico, UNC Lineberger’s Hector L. Franco, PhD, was inspired by the island’s natural setting and thought he would continue to explore that environment with a career in marine biology. But attending college in Florida changed that trajectory, leading him to discover genetics and shift his focus to molecular biology and bioinformatics as he earned his undergraduate degrees and his doctorate.
Franco, 35, earned his doctorate in biochemistry and molecular genetics from the University of Puerto Rico Medical School and was an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He joined the UNC School of Medicine faculty in 2017 as an assistant professor of genetics.
“Lineberger was a place where I felt the success of the young faculty was important to the leadership, and there was a tenable collegiality among all faculty,” he said. “There was a real focus on the success of the individual.”
Franco’s lab combines state-of-the-art molecular and cellular techniques with genomic and computational approaches to study the human genome. “We are particularly interested in the regulation of gene expression, to see if we can turn off genes that give rise to breast and ovarian tumors,” he said.
Taking advantage of modern computer technology, Franco and his colleagues use bioinformatics and machine learning to analyze the molecular characteristics of tumors extracted at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, the clinical arm of UNC Lineberger, to understand the genetic pathways that give rise to cancer.
“Through our science, we can find new avenues for therapeutic intervention by focusing on the regulatory regions of the genome,” Franco said.
Franco and his team are focused on the epigenome and the chemical compounds that regulate gene activity within the genome. Franco says this approach may give rise to better treatments down the line by exploring the regulatory areas of the genome, instead of just targeting the genes themselves.
Franco’s research recently lead to a Department of Defense grant award to perform single-cell genomics of breast cancer patients, and he is a co-leader with H. Shelton Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger and the Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research, and Charles M. Perou, PhD, the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology and professor of Genetics and Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, on a breast cancer SPORE grant, funded by the National Cancer Institute, that will allow the scientists to explore everything from basic science, to epidemiological studies, and clinical trials of breast tumors.
“I just really enjoy pursuing new discoveries and tackling unknown questions about the human genome,” Franco said. “Every day with my team, I get to pursue unknown questions about cancer.”
Franco is also part of the Simmons Scholars Program, which was founded in 1994 by former Dean Michael Simmons, MD, and provides three to five years of salary support, structured mentorship, and career and leadership development opportunities for minority populations in the medical field.
“I want to be a role model for minorities, showing that becoming a scientist at a leading institution is possible for anyone, and that a team of any kind, sports or research, is better if it’s diverse,” he said. “Innovation is driven by diversity.”