Justina Dolorita McEvoy
Assistant Professor, BIO5 Institute
Assistant Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology
Assistant Professor, Pediatrics
Assistant Professor, Cancer Biology - GIDP
Primary Department
(520) 626-8894
Research Interest
Justina McEvoy, Ph.D. is interested in understanding how the deregulation of developmental pathways can contribute to tumorigenesis in pediatric cancers. Dr. McEvoy is currently focused on two projects. The first project studies the role of the Rb tumor suppressor in regulation of differentiation pathways in a rare childhood cancer of the retina called retinoblastoma. She believes that Rb may play an important role in silencing the retinal progenitor program when cells exit the cell cycle and commit to specific neuronal fates. Inactivation of the RB1 gene during retinogenesis may aberrantly activate the progenitor program in specific retinal neurons making them susceptible to become tumorigenic. The second project studies the relationship between the genetic and epigenetic contributions in a pediatric cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. Recent whole genome sequencing analysis of the rhabdomyosarcoma alveolar histological subtype reveal very few genetic alterations, with no recurrent mutations in any known cancer consensus genes. Dr. McEvoy believes deregulation of epigenetic mechanisms are driving tumor progression in these tumors. Overall, Dr. McEvoy hopes to shed light on fundamental mechanisms of normal development and tumorigenesis and provide novel therapeutic approaches for these devastating pediatric cancers.


Kratochvill, F., Neale, G., Haverkamp, J. M., Van de Velde, L., Smith, A. M., Kawauchi, D., McEvoy, J., Roussel, M. F., Dyer, M. A., Qualls, J. E., & Murray, P. J. (2015). TNF Counterbalances the Emergence of M2 Tumor Macrophages. Cell reports, 12(11), 1902-14.

Cancer can involve non-resolving, persistent inflammation where varying numbers of tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) infiltrate and adopt different activation states between anti-tumor M1 and pro-tumor M2 phenotypes. Here, we resolve a cascade causing differential macrophage phenotypes in the tumor microenvironment. Reduction in TNF mRNA production or loss of type I TNF receptor signaling resulted in a striking pattern of enhanced M2 mRNA expression. M2 gene expression was driven in part by IL-13 from eosinophils co-recruited with inflammatory monocytes, a pathway that was suppressed by TNF. Our data define regulatory nodes within the tumor microenvironment that balance M1 and M2 populations. Our results show macrophage polarization in cancer is dynamic and dependent on the balance between TNF and IL-13, thus providing a strategy for manipulating TAMs.

Zhang, J., Benavente, C. A., McEvoy, J., Flores-Otero, J., Ding, L., Chen, X., Ulyanov, A., Wu, G., Wilson, M., Wang, J., Brennan, R., Rusch, M., Manning, A. L., Ma, J., Easton, J., Shurtleff, S., Mullighan, C., Pounds, S., Mukatira, S., , Gupta, P., et al. (2012). A novel retinoblastoma therapy from genomic and epigenetic analyses. Nature, 481(7381), 329-34.

Retinoblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer of the developing retina that is initiated by the biallelic loss of RB1. Tumours progress very quickly following RB1 inactivation but the underlying mechanism is not known. Here we show that the retinoblastoma genome is stable, but that multiple cancer pathways can be epigenetically deregulated. To identify the mutations that cooperate with RB1 loss, we performed whole-genome sequencing of retinoblastomas. The overall mutational rate was very low; RB1 was the only known cancer gene mutated. We then evaluated the role of RB1 in genome stability and considered non-genetic mechanisms of cancer pathway deregulation. For example, the proto-oncogene SYK is upregulated in retinoblastoma and is required for tumour cell survival. Targeting SYK with a small-molecule inhibitor induced retinoblastoma tumour cell death in vitro and in vivo. Thus, retinoblastomas may develop quickly as a result of the epigenetic deregulation of key cancer pathways as a direct or indirect result of RB1 loss.

Stewart, E., McEvoy, J. D., Wang, H., & Chen, X. (2018). Integrated Genomic, Epigenomic and Proteomic Analysis Identifies a Therapeutic Vulnerability in Rhabdomyosarcoma. Cancer Cell - Submitted in January 2018.

ABSTRACTPersonalized cancer therapy targeting somatic mutations identified in patient tumors is increasingly being incorporated into oncology practice. In addition, other therapeutic vulnerabilities resulting from changes in gene expression that are a direct or indirect result of tumor specific epigenetic perturbations are increasingly being recognized. These genomic and epigenomic changes are ultimately manifest in the tumor proteome and phosphoproteome. In this study, we integrated transcriptomic, epigenomic and proteomic/phosphoproteomic data for rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) to improve our understanding of the cellular origins of this developmental tumor and to identify novel therapeutic vulnerabilities. We identifying deregulated developmental pathways in RMS including the WNT, HH, BMP, adenyl cyclase, p38/MAPK and PI3K pathways and showed that the alveolar subtype of RMS has progressed further along the developmental program than the embryonal subtype. The only potentially druggable pathway based on genomic data that was also deregulated in our integrated analysis was the RAS/MEK/ERK/CDK4/6 pathway. Recent success targeting CDK4/6 and MEK in adult cancers with RAS mutations led us to test the value of these targets in RMS in culture and in vivo. In addition, the integrated data combined with our drug sensitivity data revealed that the G2/M cell cycle checkpoint, and unfolded protein response (UPR) pathways were deregulated and potentially druggable in culture and in vivo. Taken together, these data demonstrate the value of integrating transcriptomic, epigenomic and proteomic/phosphoproteomic data to identify tumor vulnerabilities that extend beyond somatic mutations identified in the genome.

Benavente, C. A., McEvoy, J. D., Finkelstein, D., Wei, L., Kang, G., Wang, Y., Neale, G., Ragsdale, S., Valentine, V., Bahrami, A., Temirov, J., Pounds, S., Zhang, J., & Dyer, M. A. (2013). Cross-species genomic and epigenomic landscape of retinoblastoma. Oncotarget, 4(6), 844-59.

Genetically engineered mouse models (GEMMs) of human cancer are important for advancing our understanding of tumor initiation and progression as well as for testing novel therapeutics. Retinoblastoma is a childhood cancer of the developing retina that initiates with biallelic inactivation of the RB1 gene. GEMMs faithfully recapitulate the histopathology, molecular, cellular, morphometric, neuroanatomical and neurochemical features of human retinoblastoma. In this study, we analyzed the genomic and epigenomic landscape of murine retinoblastoma and compared them to human retinoblastomas to gain insight into shared mechanisms of tumor progression across species. Similar to human retinoblastoma, mouse tumors have low rates of single nucleotide variations. However, mouse retinoblastomas have higher rates of aneuploidy and regional and focal copy number changes that vary depending on the genetic lesions that initiate tumorigenesis in the developing murine retina. Furthermore, the epigenetic landscape in mouse retinoblastoma was significantly different from human tumors and some pathways that are candidates for molecular targeted therapy for human retinoblastoma such as SYK or MCL1 are not deregulated in GEMMs. Taken together, these data suggest there are important differences between mouse and human retinoblastomas with respect to the mechanism of tumor progression and those differences can have significant implications for translational research to test the efficacy of novel therapies for this devastating childhood cancer.

McEvoy, J., Ulyanov, A., Brennan, R., Wu, G., Pounds, S., Zhang, J., & Dyer, M. A. (2012). Analysis of MDM2 and MDM4 single nucleotide polymorphisms, mRNA splicing and protein expression in retinoblastoma. PloS one, 7(8), e42739.

Retinoblastoma is a childhood cancer of the developing retina that begins in utero and is diagnosed in the first years of life. Biallelic RB1 gene inactivation is the initiating genetic lesion in retinoblastoma. The p53 gene is intact in human retinoblastoma but the pathway is believed to be suppressed by increased expression of MDM4 (MDMX) and MDM2. Here we quantify the expression of MDM4 and MDM2 mRNA and protein in human fetal retinae, primary retinoblastomas, retinoblastoma cell lines and several independent orthotopic retinoblastoma xenografts. We found that MDM4 is the major p53 antagonist expressed in retinoblastoma and in the developing human retina. We also discovered that MDM4 protein steady state levels are much higher in retinoblastoma than in human fetal retinae. This increase would not have been predicted based on the mRNA levels. We explored several possible post-transcriptional mechanisms that may contribute to the elevated levels of MDM4 protein. A proportion of MDM4 transcripts are alternatively spliced to produce protein products that are reported to be more stable and oncogenic. We also discovered that a microRNA predicted to target MDM4 (miR191) was downregulated in retinoblastoma relative to human fetal retinae and a subset of samples had somatic mutations that eliminated the miR-191 binding site in the MDM4 mRNA. Taken together, these data suggest that post-transcriptional mechanisms may contribute to stabilization of the MDM4 protein in retinoblastoma.