Chemist Fatima Rivas Discovers Cancer-Fighting Potential in Mushrooms

April 22, 2022

President Tate and Fatima Rivas


Fatima Rivas believes she was born to be a chemist. The LSU chemistry assistant professor is fulfilling her passion and conducting breakthrough cancer research. Rivas and her team are studying a promising new treatment for an aggressive type of breast cancer: triple-negative breast cancer, or TNBC. Their work looks at a compound derived from mushrooms. In this episode, Rivas shares her path from organic chemist to cancer researcher, and her commitment to advocating for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. 

Two students point at a computer screen in the lab.Two students conducting research in the lab.Research group photo.

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[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to "On Par with the President." Today I am joined by Fatima Rivas an LSU chemistry professor. Rivas and her team are conducting breakthrough research that has discovered a promising new treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer. In addition, Rivas is an advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM and a co-mentor for the LSU society for the advancement of Chicanos and native Americans. 

[00:00:38] "On Par with the President" is a podcast that highlights LSU community members who are doing great things. A golfer who can play par golf is at the very top of the game. They're the very best of the best. And so the whole point of this podcast is to talk to extra ordinary people who are affiliated with LSU. How are you doing?  

[00:01:01] Dr. Fatima Rivas: I'm doing fantastic today. Thank you for having me. 

[00:01:04] President William F. Tate IV: Well, welcome. Let's tee off. Tell us where you're from and how you got to Baton Rouge.  

[00:01:11] Dr. Fatima Rivas: That's a very interesting question, but I always get that question. So, um, I'm actually, my family is Salvadorian, but I grew up in Los Angeles. So I went to school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hills as an undergraduate student. Then I moved on to UC San Diego, then to Scripps in La Jolla, and ultimately, um, I did about 10 years, uh, as a, as a faculty in a non-tenure, uh, position at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. And from there I came here, so it was a long journey, but I got here. 

[00:01:48] President William F. Tate IV: Well that pathway is one that is, um, very, uh, profound in the sense that I believe that is the optimal pathway for California natives to get into STEM. So it's very exciting to hear that it actually works, and I've heard a lot about that. How, how did you become interested in chemistry?  

[00:02:05] Dr. Fatima Rivas: I have to say that I believe I was born a chemist. So I was always interested in chemistry since I was a child. However, as I, as I said, my family is Salvadorian. And so it's a family of immigrants and their understanding of science was somewhat limited. Um, so I don't think that they understood what I was doing, but I was always interested in setting up, um, what we call chromatography. And so that was something that I was very interested. And basically what it was at that time as a child, when I was probably six years old, was looking at flowers. I was extremely interested in colors. And so I wanted to separate the different colors that flowers had. And I used to do that as a child.  

[00:02:48] President William F. Tate IV: Wow. So what turned you from your interest in chemistry to studying cancer?  

[00:02:52] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So that was a gradual advancement, if you will. Because, um, when I started, I started as an organic chemist as a total synthesis chemist. And what that means basically is that I take a very small fragment in a molecule and I make it more complex. Um, in my training, working with, um, compounds, it was accessing it and developing methods to generate those compounds. Uh, but as, uh, my, uh, development as a scientist grew, I realized that they needed to have a significance. 

[00:03:26] And so those molecules became a passion of mine, but I wanted to ensure that they had an effect. And so cancer became an area of interest. Um, because I had seen it in my life. Most people will see cancer in their life, not necessarily as a patient, uh, but they will see a relative who's going to be affected by the disease. And so it was something that became, um, I became very intrigued. And I realized that the compounds that we were working with could have a direct effect.  

[00:03:55] President William F. Tate IV: You talked about being driven by personal issues. Many of us have been touched by cancer. Do you have any personal connections that motivate your work?  

[00:04:02] Dr. Fatima Rivas: Yes. So when I started looking at cancer, um, it turned out that two of my cousins had suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. And so it was personal for me. One of them didn't make it, the other one did. Uh, but it changed my perspective, because I didn't realize how tragic, uh, something can be for a person, uh, when they depart. So I was still very young at that time, uh, but I realized that I wanted to do something so that no one else had to go through what I had gone through. 

[00:04:34] And so that's why I started looking at acute lymphoblastic leukemia for a long time. So in fact, I have studied acute lymphoblastic leukemia for over seven years. Uh, looking at glucocorticoid resistance, um, or drug resistance in acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  

[00:04:50] President William F. Tate IV: You represent the power of basic research changing communities day by day. In that regard, um, you study triple negative breast cancer. What do you want people to understand about that disease?  

[00:05:04] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So I am a natural products chemist. And what that means is that I study the properties of specific natural products. And as a chemist, I modify those natural products. So as I alluded before, I started working with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but I also realized that there was other cancer subtypes that needed to be looked at and triple negative breast cancer is one of them. It's a very aggressive type of cancer that, um, unfortunately when diagnosed, um, is typically, uh, very difficult to treat because we don't have a treatment that is selective for that type of, uh, of cancer. 

[00:05:42] And so what I want the public to understand is that, uh, triple negative breast cancer is a very complex cancer subtype, uh, that if not treated promptly, uh, it can lead to death. 

[00:05:54] President William F. Tate IV: So, how did your team decide on natural treatments to do research on?  

[00:05:59] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So as a natural product chemist, um, we are interested in looking at the ethno-pharmacological properties of these compounds because there's precedents, meaning throughout our history, as humans, we have been using nature as a remedy, if you will, uh, to alleviate some of our diseases. Uh, however, what we're using nowadays with our technology is, uh, we have the capacity, uh, to use, um, technologies that were not available before and to speed up the process and using science based research. Uh, so we know how the compound is working in a specific pathway, and that's something that our ancestors didn't have access to. 

[00:06:42] President William F. Tate IV: Well, a lot of us put mushrooms in our salad, but I understand you're using it as part of one of your natural treatments. How did you, how did you discover the mushroom as a potential cure for cancer?  

[00:06:53] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So there's different types of mushrooms. The, uh, the fungi family is relatively large. And so, um, we screened, uh, and what, what I mean by that, screening, what that means is that we evaluate, uh, different extracts from natural products, different natural sources. 

[00:07:09] So I, my group primarily uses plant material. But we started a collaboration, uh, with a colleague in Puerto Rico, looking at a specific, uh, fungi that is called Ganoderma. And so we have been studying that natural product and that's the one that, uh, we have been very fortunate, uh, because it is an active compound and it has shown response in vivo and in vitro. Uh, but we are looking at, uh, trying to evaluate all the properties of this compound to ensure that it is safe, um, but it is cytotoxic to the cancer.  

[00:07:45] President William F. Tate IV: Part of our agenda here at LSU is a scholarship first agenda. And we're really interested in pushing, you know, great research at the university, including the kind that you conduct. But some people will say, how long is it going to take to cure cancer? And how are we going to cure all these different forms? What, what's your prognosis? Where do you think we are with curing cancer?  

[00:08:07] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So the problem is that I believe society's looking for a magic bullet. Okay? And that is a problem because not every cancer subtype is going to respond the same. And so we have to be, um, we have to accept the fact that we're going to have to continuously do research, uh, to understand each cancer subtype and develop a personalized treatment for our communities. So every cancer has to be treated differently. Um, in terms of the time frame, I will tell you that it's, uh, it's difficult to say how long it will take. 

[00:08:43] Um, but I have to say that we hope, uh, that natural products could be advanced, um, faster, simply because, in terms of the clinical trials, because they have already been in vivo. So in other words, people have already taken them. And so, uh, the timeframe could be shorter than any other small molecule, um, in the clinic.  

[00:09:04] President William F. Tate IV: You mentioned personalized medicine. Talk to us a little bit about that, help people understand what we're trying to get done with personalized medicine.  

[00:09:13] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So this is a term that has been widely used. I want to say in the past 20 years. Because we were trying to develop compounds that are going to be selective for a cancer subtype. But within that cancer subtype, we also need to personalize the individual. 

[00:09:31] Each person is different, and so the treatment will be different, and the protocols are going to be different. Um, but we need to maximize that. So, we have limited funds, you know, within, uh, the research family, uh, in the United States. And so as researchers, there's only so much that we can do to personalize. So what we do is that we group, so we have cohorts of individuals, so it's not going to be for each single individual, but it's treating people as cohorts, uh, and maximizing the treatment for that specific group.  

[00:10:05] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you might know this, but LSU is going to make a run at NCI designation. If we were to achieve that, how would that impact your work? 

[00:10:13] Dr. Fatima Rivas: Oh, it would be a game changer, because that would provide facilities that might not be available at this point at LSU. Uh, and so that would accelerate our work. Uh, it would be extremely impactful.  

[00:10:27] President William F. Tate IV: Glad to hear that, cause we're going to make the push. Now, in golf it's about scoring. So a double eagle is really what you want. That's really getting it done. Tell us your double eagle. What are you most proud of about what you do? And, what you hope to accomplish. 

[00:10:43] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So, so far, I think that my greatest pride, and what I'm really proud about is, um, my undergraduate students that have been successful. So I've had, uh, I had a lot of undergraduate students that have gone to medical school, and that they have achieved their dreams. 

[00:11:00] And so I part, I played a small part of that. And so I have to say that that's probably my greatest accomplishment at this point, uh, as a person. As a scientist, uh, we have, uh, advanced, uh, some of our compounds, um, in terms of understanding their properties. That has allowed me to develop a better understanding of the science. So I feel that I have grown, but I have contributed to society, um, by, um, identifying compounds that have, uh, potential properties to alleviate disease.  

[00:11:36] President William F. Tate IV: Well a big part of being a scientist, is that line of inquiry, your research, where's it headed. Everybody wants to know, what are you going to do next? That's the exciting part of the frontier you're working in. Help us understand, where, where are you going next with your work? 

[00:11:49] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So there's so many questions. Actually in science, uh, you answer one question and then you have 500 more questions to answer. And so, um, we are hoping to, um, set up a platform, if you will, uh, where we can actually have compounds that we can use as tools, uh, to identify different, uh, cell death modalities. And so that would be your ultimate objective to have a set of, or a toolkit, that would allow us to just go in the lab and say, "okay, today I'm going to use this compound for this specific cell death modality, because I want to test something." And so that would be the ideal. And I think that we are getting there, but setting up that platform takes a little bit of time.  

[00:12:36] President William F. Tate IV: Nice. Well, golf is a very polite sport. We help one another. We mind the flag for when other people are trying to make a shot. In other words, we help other people be great at what they do. You talked about your mentoring. Help us understand a little bit about your background and makes you motivated to be a mentor. And why did you get involved with advancing underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields?  

[00:13:00] Dr. Fatima Rivas: I think it's important to recognize that we all have talents. And so I think that it is a big mistake not to provide support to underrepresented minorities and women. So as an organic chemist, I am in a field that is primarily male dominated. And so that, since I started, uh, I realized that I was alone. And I felt the need, uh, to, I didn't want to feel that I didn't belong there, but that's how I felt. And so, because I had that experience firsthand, I think I can provide support to women and minorities, because I've been there and I done that. So I know that it is a lonely road. And so providing support and guidance, uh, could ultimately, uh, enhance our scientific, uh, research body that we have at this point.  

[00:13:51] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you're a disease fighter and we want those who are disease fighters here at LSU, working in biotechnology as faculty members, staff, students. What's your pitch for joining LSU in this great fight against disease? What would you tell folks?  

[00:14:09] Dr. Fatima Rivas: I think that this is the right time. It is the time. We have the technology. We have the tools. We just need your talent to become part of, of the team that is fighting disease. And I do hope that, uh, the next generations are going to, uh, maximize the efforts and the foundation that we're establishing. I believe that, um, a lot of people have come in front of us and they've paved the way. And so right now the road is already there, so we just need drivers. And so we need you as a student to join LSU and help us, uh, make those breakthrough discoveries. 

[00:14:46] President William F. Tate IV: That's a good pitch. I'm ready to jump in. Now, we have this section called fun questions. Fun is relative, but, but I think they're pretty fun. You, tell us a little bit about what you do for fun to take a break from the heaviness of studying cancer.  

[00:15:00] Dr. Fatima Rivas: Oh, gee. Okay. So I think that I am not a, uh, maybe, I don't play sports, um, and so I am limited in what I do, uh, because I really enjoy being in the lab. And so I think that, that's probably more exciting for me as a scientist. Um, but I do a little bit of gardening. So when I moved here to Baton Rouge, I started to, um, develop my own, uh, vegetable garden. And so I've been extremely excited about that. And, I am collecting radishes right now, so. 

[00:15:33] President William F. Tate IV: Now that's not one of your natural products that you use to fight the cancer deal, is it?  

[00:15:38] Dr. Fatima Rivas: No, but it helps me. It helps my metabolism. But I have to say for all of those, uh, for the public, I think keeping a healthy diet is, is incredibly important.  

[00:15:48] President William F. Tate IV: Excellent. So tell us a little bit about what you enjoy most about LSU and living here in Baton Rouge. 

[00:15:55] Dr. Fatima Rivas: So, uh, I think the best part about LSU is that, uh, it's extremely collegiate. So the faculty in my department is very friendly and very supportive and that's something that I had not experienced in the past. So I was, um, I'm extremely happy to be in an environment that is very supportive. Um, and of course, because of COVID, we've had, uh, challenges, but I do sense, there's a sense of, uh, support and optimism for the future. And I enjoy that greatly, um, at LSU. 

[00:16:29] President William F. Tate IV: Well, thank you so much. And we're really appreciative of your investment in solving the cancer problem and look forward to the outstanding research products that you're going to create. We're better at LSU because you're here. So thank you so much. 

[00:16:44] Dr. Fatima Rivas: Thank you.