What is the significance of this program?
Federal agencies (National Science Board, National Academy of Science, and National Institutes of Health) and private-sector interest groups (Council on Competitiveness) have warned of a crisis in U.S. science education and a loss of national competitiveness in science and technology. Compared with peers around the world, fewer young Americans perform at sufficiently high levels in the sciences and large numbers of aspiring science majors are "turned-off" at some point in their careers and migrate to other disciplines. As a consequence of these deficits, a decreasing number of American citizens apply to U.S. graduate schools and an increasing proportion of new doctorates are conferred upon foreign nationals. The biomedical sciences have not been excluded from this trend. Indeed, although the numbers of students in biomedical graduate programs have increased during the last 20 years the majority of this increase has been due to an influx of foreign students. Two additional trends have impacted the "pipeline" of students wishing to conduct biomedical research: (1) the time to completion of graduate degrees has increased, and (2) graduates are forced to pursue lengthier post-doctoral positions prior to accepting their first academic or private-sector research position. The Jimmy V-NCSU Cancer Therapeutics Training Program was established to help combat these alarming trends. The overall goal of this program is to encourage young biomedical scientists to pursue their scientific interests and become leading members of the next generation of cancer researchers.
How will the program work?
Promising North Carolina high school students and NCSU undergraduate students will be identified via a rigorous selection process and given the opportunity to join ongoing basic cancer research projects in laboratories that constitute the Jimmy V-NCSU Cancer Therapeutics Training Program. The four founding laboratories in this NC State program are led by myself, Dr. John Cavanagh (Professor, Dept. of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry), and Drs. Jonathan Lindsey (Professor) and Christian Melander (Assistant Professor) in the Dept. of Chemistry. Jimmy V Scholars will work in teams with graduate and post-doctoral students on projects that will provide "hands-on" experience in a range of disciplines: from the creation of animal models for particular human cancers to the identification of key genes and regulatory pathways that are hijacked in cancer cells, from the dissection of the intricacies of protein structure to the production of molecules designed to block opportunistic infections in cancer patients, from the development of the next generation of photochemical therapeutic drugs to their customization for individual cancer patients.
What experiences will participants have in your lab?
We have identified two genes that play critical roles in the regulation of pre-malignant and malignant tumors of the skin and prostate gland. These genes are normally responsible for the orchestration of cell and tissue development in embryos and, insidiously, can become aberrantly activated in normal, adult cells leading to tumorigenesis. The incidence of skin and prostate cancers is rising dramatically; more than a million Americans were diagnosed with these cancers in 2007 and more than 40,000 deaths will occur as a consequence. We have generated a number of animal models to study the abnormal expression of these two genes. These models exhibit an explosive program of cell proliferation leading to the outgrowth of pre-malignant tumors, facilitating the identification of the precise mechanisms that underlie the conversion of normal, adult cells to immature, tumorigenic progeny. Furthermore, these animal models also represent unique platforms to design and test the efficacy of targeted therapeutic drugs that we will develop in collaboration with our colleagues at NC State.
What would you like to see develop from this program?
As I mentioned, we view this program as a unique mechanism to encourage young science majors to seriously consider biomedical research as a career. We are, of course, especially interested in increasing the “pipeline” of young folks interested in a career in cancer research. The generous funds that we have received from the Jimmy V Foundation have facilitated the training that will be conducted in the four founding NC State laboratories, yet we would like to see this program grow to include many more laboratories that are focused on additional aspects of cancer research. Here’s what I mean: in addition to my participation in this training program I also head the Oncology Core of the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research. This Core consists of 30 laboratories that span nine departments and four colleges here at NC State, and each would provide an outstanding environment for the training of young scientists. With additional funding for this training program we could greatly expand the number of participating students and provide those students with an exceedingly rich and varied training environment.
How did you become interested in cancer research?
I became interested in science at a very young age, perhaps when I was seven or eight. I was fascinated by nature, from atoms and the microscopic world to astronomy and planetary science. I also had a strong desire to help those less fortunate via scientific discovery. By the time I was in junior high school I planned on pursuing biomedical research as a career, and eventually focused on cancer research following reports of the identification of genes that cause cancer in the early to mid 1970s. I worked in a cancer research laboratory as an undergraduate at Brown University, focusing on the molecular biology of an avian virus that causes leukemia. I then performed my PhD research at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on a related virus that causes leukemia in mice. Following completion of my graduate research I moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for my post-doctoral studies, and joined Robert Weinberg’s laboratory at the Whitehead Institute. Dr. Weinberg has been a leader in cancer research for nearly 30 years and I had the privilege of characterizing the functional and biochemical properties of the retinoblastoma protein, the first cloned tumor-suppressor gene, in his lab. I subsequently began my own research laboratory and have been working on various aspects of molecular oncology as an independent investigator for the last 20 years.