What are your current research interests and/or what is a project you are currently working on?
Our overall goals are to develop new therapeutic strategies for the effective treatment of patients with drug resistant and metastatic breast cancers. Current efforts focus on optimizing a novel class of drugs that selectively kill breast tumors that overexpress the EGFR or HER2 oncoproteins, and on understanding how the CDCP1 protein contributes to breast cancer metastasis. Our drug development efforts involve a multidisciplinary, collaborative team that includes chemists, breast oncologists, and cancer biologists.
Who or what has inspired you to pursue this career?
After earning a B.S. in chemistry, I was not sure how best to apply this knowledge, so I worked as a laboratory technician for an entomologist and an immunologist. During this time it dawned on me that organisms are highly complex chemical systems that represent the ultimate “puzzles,” and that understanding these puzzles was the basis for advancing medical science. This fascination with deciphering biochemical mechanisms prompted me to pursue graduate training in biochemistry at Purdue University.
Why did you decide to focus on cancer?
During the end of my Ph.D. training, I searched for a postdoctoral position that involved a signaling pathway that was known to be important in biology, but was little-studied, so that the most significant discoveries were yet to be made. I also wanted to obtain experience with new techniques that were cutting-edge at the time such as molecular biology, transgenic/knockout mouse technology, microarray gene expression analysis, etc. This led me to do postdoctoral work in the laboratory of Hal Moses, M.D., who at the time was the founding director of the Vanderbilt Cancer Center and Chair of the Vanderbilt Cell Biology Dept. Hal was one of the original discoverers of Transforming Growth Factor-β (TGFβ) and was using mouse models to probe the role of TGFαβ signaling on the formation and spread of breast cancer. After this experience, I became even more fascinated with cell signaling pathways as a vehicle for understanding how cancer cells differ from normal tissues, and as a source for therapeutic targets for the development of new anticancer drugs.
What do you want to achieve with your work and/or in your career?
Our goal is to contribute to the understanding of the biochemical mechanisms responsible for tumor formation and progression. In addition, I hope that our work will lead to the development of new classes of drugs that eventually improve therapy for cancer, and that these compounds will be useful as molecular probes to better understand cancer biology and to refine our ability to pharmacologically target tumor cells effectively and safely.
What excites you about your work? What is exciting to you about your field right now?
My graduate mentor, Sandra Rossie, Ph.D., told me that a Ph.D. was a “license to learn.” I didn’t fully appreciate what she meant at the time. I now realize that I really enjoy collaborating with colleagues who are experts in other fields such as chemistry, structural biology, and immunology because I constantly learn new and interesting things. What I most eagerly anticipate is seeing how all of the enormous amounts of new data that are being collected in rapidly developing areas (immunology, nanotechnology, metabolomics, microbiome analysis, epigenetics, bioinformatics, pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry) are integrated to produce new cures for cancer that no one has dreamed of yet.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy vintage electronics and collect and restore radio receivers and transmitters from the 1920s-1960s. I’m also fascinated with modern Software-Defined Radios (SDRs) in which all of the signal processing functions that used to be carried out by analog circuits is performed by mathematical operations carried out by a computer. I have an amateur radio operator’s license (call sign: KM4YGD). Information processing is a general theme in both biology and electronics. Many of the signal processing functions carried out by electronic circuits (amplification, oscillation, filtering, mixing, positive and negative feedback loops, etc.) have correlates in biological systems.