Tell us briefly what is your research about
My lab is interested in understanding the differences between the various genetic subtypes of lung cancer. We know based on a lot of genome sequencing studies that patients with lung cancer have a lot of different mutations due to smoking and there is a lot of heterogeneity in the terms of these mutations between patients. Our lab uses mouse models to engineer the mutations that occur in humans in order to understand if these mutations promote lung cancer. Once we identify the functionally important mutations, we try to uncover the underlying biology of how these mutations drive cancer in order to identify new ways to target, which is the goal of what is called precision medicine. We have now focused on a specific combination of mutations involving the most frequently mutated oncogene called KRAS and a gene called KEAP1. Essentially, we would like to understand what these co-mutations do and target them therapeutically. We have now developed a model to study this type of lung cancer and have demonstrated that these co-mutations make tumors both grow much faster and metastasize more. These tumors are not only more aggressive, but they are also resistant to any current therapies, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy. We have found that these mutations make tumors grow faster by changing the way tumors metabolize nutrients and by producing more antioxidants. We have now identified new therapies that block the ability of these tumors to feed themselves causing them to starve and stop growing.
What makes research exciting to you?
I will give an example. My background is in genetics and I wasn’t really familiar with biochemistry, metabolism. We had a question about genetics in lung cancer and we wanted to model this in mice and interestingly enough these genetics led us to completely biology. By studying gene mutations, we have found a mutation on a gene that regulates cell metabolism. Metabolism to me was a black box and I had to learn more about how cells consume nutrients and how these nutrients are channeled to different biosynthetic processes. That was so fascinating to me and this is what I like about research – that you constantly ask new questions and when you discover one thing that opens up new research avenues. You realize that the more you know the more you don’t know, I find this exciting. Also, the most exciting part of my day is when students and postdocs are telling me about a new idea that they have based on their new data. I really find this very exciting and rewarding.
What would be your first piece of advice that you would give to a young colleague interested in working in your field?
I guess the main thing is to not be scared to try new things and do risky science. For me, you can always do the next obvious thing that is short or incremental -which is also important- but I feel that big discoveries happen when you do things that are risky and outside of the box. It is always important to constantly challenge yourself. Both changing research institutions and research fields bring new challenges. For instance, when you transition from graduate school to your postdoc try to get into a new research field where you are going to have to apply your existing knowledge and develop something new. Furthermore, you need to find good mentors and surround yourself with a good group of colleagues because science is one thing, but being happy in your working environment is almost as important as the science. I have been lucky to have really supportive mentors and colleagues throughout my career and I feel it’s been extremely important for my career development.
What would you have done differently in hindsight to improve your overall performance?
Potentially, I would have delved into different aspects of biology and maybe studied a little bit more about immunology and things that I am interested in now. Maybe I would have tried to learn more during my graduate school and postdoc about some other research fields that are unknown to me until now. In addition, I would have liked to work in a research lab earlier in my life, even in high school, in order to build more on my research skills and thinking. I currently have high school students in my lab and I feel that it is really good for them to have this research experience going forward.
What you enjoy outside academia?
Well, I live in New York which is a very stimulating place. I really enjoy to go out, listen to music, visit museums. I also like traveling to new places and experiencing new cultures. Luckily, being a scientist has its advantages such as travelling to conferences in locations all over the world, which allows you to experience new places and cultures. I think that this is actually very important in order to grow as a person. I also enjoy biking every weekend. In general, it’s important to be dedicated to science but it’s equally important to have a personal life and a life outside the lab. Personal well-being is important in order to be productive.
Interviewed by Christos Lisgaras, PhD
HBA-USA Social Media Coordinator & Public Outreach