The cure for cancer won’t be discovered in a hospital or clinical exam room. The “a-ha” moment that leads to a cure will most likely happen to a molecular geneticist or cell biologist hunched over a sophisticated piece of equipment analyzing cell or tissue samples.
It’s not as sexy an idea as a personalized cancer vaccine or miracle pill, but basic science research—also known as bench or laboratory research—is where all discoveries about complex diseases begin. Without it, scientists would never understand why or how disease occurs and effective treatments could not be formulated.
Under the direction of internationally known cell biologist Jorge Moscat, PhD, UC’s cancer and cell biology department is building an impressive research team capable of making significant breakthroughs against one of the most tricky and least understood diseases: cancer.
Moscat was appointed chair of the cancer and cell biology department just over a year ago when the College of Medicine decided to merge the molecular oncogenesis and cell and cancer biology departments in an effort to bring experts in biology, molecular genetics and oncology together under one leader to collaborate on impactful research initiatives.
Since assuming leadership of the department, Moscat has recruited seven new faculty members—four of whom came from other UC departments.
Moscat says these researchers represent the renewed vision for UC’s cancer and cell biology department.
“The people we have recruited in the past year are extremely competitive. I am confident they will build a stronger national and international reputation for UC’s cancer and cell biology program over the next few years,” says Moscat.
“This positive view of the institution and department is key not only to faculty recruitment and funding, but also to attracting exceptional doctoral students to our training programs.”
The changes are already noticeable: The department has been awarded an additional $8 million in grant funding since January 2009 and is working on joint recruitment of cancer researchers with Cincinnati Children’s Hos-pital Medical Center. Faculty have also published work in top-notch journals such as Nature Cell Biology, MCB, Cancer Cell, PNAS, EMBO Journal and Cell.
“Our goal is to conduct solid science and build connections with clinical departments with an emphasis on cancer—pediatrics, surgery, internal medicine, environmental health—to translate our research findings into solutions that will help patients sooner rather than later,” adds Moscat.
In May, Chunying Du, PhD, joined the department as an associate professor from the Stowers Institute of Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo. Her work focuses on programmed cell death (apoptosis) and how this phenomenon influences cancer through interactions with DNA repair and cell cycle checkpoint controls.
Her published work on Smac, a mitochondrial protein that promotes cell death, is considered groundbreaking in her field.
Sang Oh Yoon, PhD, arrived in Cincinnati in August from Harvard Medical School where he completed postdoctoral fellowship work on the regulation of nuclear receptors in cancer. His work focuses on understanding how cellular signaling molecules and nuclear trafficking molecules regulate cell cycle progression, cell proliferation and cell survival. Yoon says understanding the cross-talk between cellular signaling molecules and nuclear trafficking molecules could lead to different ways to treat a growing number of diseases ranging from metabolic disorders, to cancers that have been linked to improper regulation of nuclear transport and cellular signaling.
In October, Samuel Godar, PhD, most recently of the Whitehead Institute for Biomed-ical Research, will join the UC cancer and cell biology team. His work focuses on identifying proteins regulated by a major tumor suppressor (P53) and a primary epithelial development protein known as P63 that occurs in normal and cancerous breast epithelial cells.
The goal is to identify proteins that act as a major driving force of the tumor growth but are dispensable for normal cells.
Godar’s work also explores two potentially connected pathological phenomena in cancer research: epithelial-mesenchymal transition, which causes the cells to leave the primary tumor site and metastasize; and cancer cells’ ability to form new tumors related to cancer stem cells.
All the new recruits say the clear focus of the department and its faculty’s enthusiasm made UC a great scientific home. Says Yoon: “I got the feeling that my research could fit well with the department, and I could do my research successfully with other people’s help.”
“It was clear on my first visit that UC offered the best possible environment for my research because my work is relevant to human pathologies—particularly cancer and neurodegenerative diseases,” adds Du. “The research diversity of an academic health center offers many opportunities for collaboration.”
And that’s what Moscat is trying to create: a stimulating, collaborative research environment made up of experienced researchers—such as Susan Waltz, PhD, Carolyn Price, PhD, Shao-Chun Wang, PhD, and Jinsong Zhang, PhD, who were recently recruited into the department from other areas in the UC College of Medicine—and new investigators filled with fresh ideas and a drive to make their mark on cancer research.
The department is a key component of the Cincinnati Cancer Consortium, a joint cancer initiative involving the UC College of Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and University Hospital. The collaborative brings together interdisciplinary research teams of caring scientists and health professionals to research and develop new cures, while providing a continuum of care for children, adults and families with cancer.
“Competition for funding continues to get more brutal, so we are setting higher expectations for our faculty,” adds Moscat. “The Cin-cinnati Cancer Consortium’s ultimate goal is to achieve National Cancer Institute designation.
“Our role is to build truly world-class molecular and cellular cancer research programs that will make a difference in our understanding of cancer.”