UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Magazine Spring 2017 - Page 21

and a successful cancer researcher in his own right. My two children love the Birmingham area as well. They are in the Vestavia Hills school system and were able to quickly settle in amongst the friendly community. I feel very fortunate to also have a wonderful “lab family.” My lab family are the people with whom I spend most of my time at work – the members who are the driving force of my research. Our research A tumor is not a sole entity. It’s always engaged in a dialogue with its surrounding. The cancer community coined the terms “tumor milieu” or “tumor microenvironment.” Tumor cells modify their environment to make it conducive for their growth and metastasis (spread). Research has shown that even before the cancer cells set up their route of migration, they send out signals that travel through the circulation and start conditioning the secondary site for the arrival of the cancer cells. I study the cross-talk, or the conversation, between the tumor cells and the cells in the tumor microenvironment. The microenvironment is a village of multiple cells – stromal cells, fibroblasts, endothelial cells, and the plethora of immune cells. My research investigates the dialogue between these cells and the tumor cells, and how this dialogue enables the tumor cells to break free of the bounds of being at the primary site and metastasize to a secondary site. We investigate metastasis, predominantly in breast cancer. Breast cancer is known to metastasize to different organs – the lungs, liver, bones, the brain. The tumor cells that initially grow in the breast find their way out of the confines of the primary tumor, travel through the vasculature system, and end up in the bone or the liver or the brain. They set up shop at the secondary site and start growing there. One of the signaling mechanisms we investigate is the hedgehog pathway, which is very active during development. There are several morphogenetic cues that happen in the development of the embryo, which results in cells moving about. After the development of the embryo is complete, in a fully grown adult, this pathway isn’t active, except for sites where there is regeneration, such as our gastrointestinal tract or during injury repair. Cancer cells are clever. They turn on this signaling mechanism because it gives them an adva ntage in terms of growth and in being able to metastasize. We’ve been investigating this hedgehog signaling for the past 10 years (see cover story, page X). Ongoing research areas encompass investigations on further molecular characterization of the dialogue between tumor cells and microenvironment and its impact on drug resistance. The overall goal is to discover novel targets of intervention. Cancer Center Education and Training Another area that I’m excited about is my new role as the Cancer Center’s associate director of education and training. My goal is to provide oversight and coordination of our Cancer Center’s extensive education and training programs and build on the professional training opportunities at UAB. I want to have a unified structure of education and training, encompassing not just graduate students and post-doctoral students, but also clinicians, residents, fellows and junior faculty. The goal at UAB is to ensure our faculty and trainees succeed. My vision is to shape and develop the minds and careers of future cancer researchers and clinicians – essentially our future leaders. I’m a researcher at heart. I love doing my research. That’s the one thing that gets me out of bed every morning. What is the next big question we can ask? What new experiment am I going to design to address the next big question? I love that aspect about research – asking the questions, finding the answers, and in the process, being able to train the next generation of cancer researchers. We’re at war with cancer, and it’s not a one-person army. We have to train an army of qualified people. The only way we can train an army of people is by training the next generation of researchers. I love coming to work and training students and fellows. I see these students at different stages. They come in unsure, but with a tremendous level of energy and enthusiasm to take on a challenge. It is after they have joined a laboratory and they qualify to candidacy that you can see the change. They’re suddenly confident and take ownership in their projects. Seeing that transition is outstanding. That’s when I know, “This is why I do what I do.” # K N O W U A B C C C • “I’m a researcher at heart. I love doing my research. That’s the one thing that gets me out of bed every morning.” U A B . E D U / C A N C E R 19