Q&A: Finding and Exploiting Cancer’s Weaknesses

My latest story posted on Science Careers:

Oncologist David Solit, 41, has some close professional role models: His father was a surgeon and his grandfather a family practitioner. Like many doctors who pursue oncology, he became interested in the disease after a relative died from breast cancer. But it was a laboratory rotation during his oncology fellowship that sealed his interest in cancer research.

“My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good,” Solit says. “I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic.”

Now, Solit holds the Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and heads his own laboratory in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His lab studies a particular signaling pathway, the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway, which regulates cell growth and survival in several cancers. “We try to identify the underlying genetic basis of different tumor types and then develop novel therapies that will exploit the specific mutations that drive tumorigenesis or cancer progression,” he says. Solit is the author of an upcoming Perspective in Science Signaling on MEK resistance, which will be published on 29 March.

Solit spoke with Science Careers earlier this month about his research and his career path. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A full transcript of the conversation is available on CTSciNet.

Click here to continue reading on the Science Careers Web site.

The article was part of a special issue of Science on cancer; see the list of all related content in all the Science publications at www.sciencemag.org/special/cancer2011/.

Psychosocial Oncology Research Faces Uncertain Future in UK

In November, the cancer charity Cancer Research UK announced its research strategy for the next 5 years. Included in it are goals to increase research on the early diagnosis of cancer; invest more in research on radiotherapy and surgery; and devote more research to cancers of the lung, pancreas, and esophagus. But for some researchers, the strategy is notable for what it doesn’t include: Cancer Research UK has decided to discontinue funding research in several areas it has long supported, including psychosocial oncology.

The decision has “created seismic shockwaves” throughout the psychosocial oncology research community, said Lesley Fallowfield, Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research UK Sussex Psychosocial Oncology Group at the University of Sussex. At the same time, it means that she and her colleagues have to start looking for new funding in an uncertain economy. “With the current economic gloom and doom, this is not a good time to be looking for other funders,” Fallowfield said.

Broadly defined, psychosocial oncology investigates the psychological, behavioral, and social aspects of cancer. Likewise, research in this area is broad, even among the programs supported by Cancer Research UK. Fallowfield and her group have done research in several aspects of psychosocial oncology but primarily specialize in teaching effective communication skills to practicing oncologists. Galina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Oncology and Clinical Practice Research Group at the University of Leeds, specializes in patient-reported outcomes of symptoms and emotional distress among cancer patients. Michael Sharpe, M.D., director of the Psychological Medicine Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, and his group do large-scale clinical trials on managing depression in cancer.

Cancer Research UK will continue to support all three programs until their grants run out, which is in 2011 for Fallowfield and 2012 for Sharpe and Velikova. Their program grants range from about £1.7 million to about £5 million over 5 years, “a mere blip”—less than 1%—of the organization’s total research budget, Fallowfield said.

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, May 26, 2009. Read the rest of this article online.

Cancer in Europe: New Report, Recent Efforts Take Continent-wide Perspective

Patterns of cancer incidence and mortality across Europe are as varied as the continent’s geography. But a new report finds that, in general, obesity and tobacco use are driving cancer incidence, mortality, and survival across Europe: Overall cancer incidence has decreased since the mid-1990s in northern and western Europe except for obesity-related cancers, and incidence of and mortality from tobacco-related cancers is falling among men in northern, western, and southern Europe but increasing in central Europe.

The analysis, published in the June issue of the European Journal of Cancer, comes as two Europe-wide efforts related to cancer take shape: The European Code Against Cancer is about to be updated for the first time in 5 years, and the European Commission is gearing up to create a cancer plan for the entire European Union.

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, September 9, 2008. Read the full article online.

Prevention, Survivorship Highlighted in England’s Cancer Plan Update

Cancer prevention and survivorship feature prominently in England’s latest update to its national cancer plan. The update—called the cancer reform strategy—comes with £370 million (US$740 million) in new funding, though critics say that’s not nearly enough to make effective changes.

“Cancer’s a fast-moving area, and we’ve made a lot of strides in a lot of different areas. [The cancer reform strategy] is moving the agenda on with a focus on areas that weren’t focused on as strongly in the cancer plan,” said Teresa Moss, director of the National Cancer Action Team, part of England’s National Health Service (NHS).

Although the original cancer plan in 2000 did cover some aspects of prevention, the update strengthens the focus. “It’s a slightly different emphasis,” said Catherine Foot, head of policy for Cancer Research UK. “For instance, in 2000, the evidence wasn’t as clear as it is now on the link between obesity and cancer. In 2000, the policy initiatives on diet and cancer were things like the 5-a-day fruit and vegetable initiative, whereas now, we’re looking at obesity and weight management. It’s a shift in priorities.”

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, March 25, 2008. Read the full article online.

Recent Conference Addresses Research Integrity on Global Scale

The name Jon Sudbø is one that many in the cancer community will not soon forget. In early 2006, Sudbø admitted to fabricating patient data used in a study of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and oral cancer risk published in The Lancet. Sudbø’s institution, the Norwegian Radium Hospital, promptly appointed a special commission to investigate all his research from the previous decade. The commission found evidence of falsified and fabricated data dating back to Sudbø’s Ph.D. project (J Natl Cancer Inst 2006;98:374–6).

The findings prompted the Norwegian government to formally put into place national research ethics committees tasked with proactive, preventive education on research integrity. The government also established a national office chaired by a judge to investigate cases of alleged scientific misconduct, and new legislation on ethics and integrity in research went into effect in July of this year.

The Sudbø case has parallels all over the world: Research misconduct made national headlines and led to a new national policy that defined the concept and set out a course of disciplinary action against future offenders. In September, the European Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Research Integrity held the first world conference on research integrity to give researchers and policymakers from around the globe a chance to share their experiences in establishing such systems, as well as to discuss what a global framework for research integrity might look like.

The growing globalization of science is a major driving force behind a push to establish a world standard. “We are no longer dealing with single-investigator projects,” said Lida Anestidou, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research at the National Academies. “We have multicultural, multinational, multi-institutional, multi-investigator, very expensive investigations. Therefore, [the number of coauthors has] risen dramatically, and disputes over credit, over intellectual property, and over patents have all risen dramatically.”

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, December 15, 2007. Read the full article online.

Cancer in Africa: Health Experts Aim To Curb Potential Epidemic

It seems like cancer should be the least of the health worries in most of the countries on the African continent, where communicable diseases are the leading cause of death and the life expectancy in more than half of the countries is under 50 years.

Compared with those of Western countries, cancer rates in the region are relatively low. But the prognosis for cancer in Africa looks grim: In sub-Saharan Africa, there were 582,000 new cancers diagnosed in 2002, and 412,100 people died from the disease. If no interventions are put in place, it’s expected that the number of new cases diagnosed will rise to 804,000 and mortality will reach 626,400 by 2020.

The reasons why vary: Skyrocketing rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS have led to a rapid increase in the incidence of Kaposi sarcoma and other AIDS-related cancers; risk factors such as obesity and alcohol use are on the rise, affecting cancer and other noncommunicable diseases that share these risks; and there is a worrisome escalation in smoking rates among Africans, a trend that, if it continues, is sure to lead to a glut of tobacco-related cancers.

“I was taught in medical school that cancer is not a problem in Africa. But that is a myth,” said Twalib Ngoma, M.D., executive director of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “If we don’t do something now, [cancer rates are] going to increase. We should not be complacent just because we find that infections are more of a problem now.”

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, July 24, 2007. Read the full story online.