Basic science research at UNC Charlotte has begun to evolve into a sophisticated biomedical focus with the recruitment of faculty from such medical research institutions as Yale, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, UC-Berkeley,
Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The Department of Biology has invested nearly $2 million in tenured and tenure-track research faculty with federally funded research in areas including immunology, physiology, molecular and cellular biology, microbiology, genetics, cancer biology, liver biology and environmental toxicology. One strong area with immediate plans for expansion is cancer biology. Presently, the department has a professor, two associate professors and two assistant professors who are engaged directly in research projects including mechanisms of spread of breast and skin cancer, mechanisms of uncontrolled (cancerous) liver cell growth, the molecular genetics of cancer initiation and DNA damage and cancer induction. At any given time, some 12 additional tenured and tenure-track faculty are conducting research that is supportive and complementary to the cancer group. The department is also currently engaged in a national search for the Irwin Belk Distinguished Professor of Cancer Biology, and the individual hired will be a recognized leader in cancer research.
Cancer Research: The Liver, the Brain, Breast and Lungs, Cancer Genetics and Cancer Genomics
How do we kill cancer cells without killing normal cells? This is one of the areas that Dr. Iain McKillop is researching in liver cancer called signal transduction (how molecules activate and inhibit signals in cancer cells). Dr. McKillop is exploring different ways to kill cancer. Funded by an NIH grant, he is studying the mechanisms behind the enhanced cell growth characteristic of liver cancer. Another research angle involves studying blood flow through the liver (with and without cancer) and applying compounds that will change blood flow to see how this affects the rate of tumor growth.
Metastatic Brain Cancer
Dr. Didier Dréau specializes in metastatic cancer research of the lung, breast, and skin. Dr. Dréau is working on a translational research project funded by the Brain Tumor Fund for the Carolinas that involves identifying specific genes and proteins key to cancer cells that travel to the brain. In another project funded by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Dr. Dréau is developing an immunocompetent model of late phase breast cancer to figure out why the cancer cells go to the bone.
Cancer Genetics and Leukemia/Lymphoma
A single exchange between two of the forty-six packaging units of DNA in each chromosome is a hallmark of many blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, and also some soft-tissue sarcomas. Dr. Christine Richardson is a geneticist in oncology/hematology trying to learn what causes these exchanges, termed chromosomal translocations that have the potential to lead to uncontrolled cell growth, genome instability, and cancer. With funding from the National Cancer Institutes and as an American Cancer Society Research Scholar, Dr. Richardson has developed a model to determine if certain drugs or environmental factors promote translocations, how we can predict them, and, ultimately, prevent them.
Cancer Genomics and Tumor Formation
Dr. Julie Goodliffe’s research interests include molecular genetics and cancer genomics. Dr. Goodliffe is studying the complex biology of tumor formation by examining the molecular role of the Myc protein in cell growth and cancer initiation. Myc is required for growth through adulthood, but once adulthood is reached, excessive Myc protein induces tumor formation. By examining the genome-wide control of Myc activity, Dr. Goodliffe and her students hope to understand the normal developmental mechanisms that prevent tumor formation in the rapid growth stages of life.
Pancreatic Cancer Progression and Metastasis
Pinku Mukherjee, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Immunology and Director of the Cellular Immunology Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, joined the cancer research faculty at UNC Charlotte in September 2008.
The laboratory is funded by the NIH to study the role of inflammation and MUC1 in pancreatic cancer progression and metastasis. Novel strategies to target these molecules within the tumor microenvironment are also being explored. This includes understanding the immune-tolerant and chemo resistant tumor microenvironment. The laboratory is also looking at the role of autoimmune inflammatory arthritis in the recruitment and homing of tumor cells to the bone to form bone metastasis during breast cancer development.
Dr. Mukherjee’s career experience includes ten years at the Mayo Clinic Scottsdale preceded by previous research tenures at Indiana University Medical Center and Pennsylvania State University. She received her Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in immunology from the University of London and her Bachelor’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry from Bombay University.
The Promise of Cancer Research. Why Charlotte? Why now?
The Promise of Cancer Research
Recent advances in cancer research have enabled the development of successful treatments resulting in higher survival odds and extended lifespans for cancer patients. The next decade shows great promise for even greater success in this direction. But cancer has not yet been eliminated. For many, there is no cure once their cancer has spread.
• Large patient base
• Robust healthcare systems with cancer centers and residency programs
• Large neurosurgery and radiation oncology practices
• Strong basic science research at UNC Charlotte
Large Patient BaseWith 2.5 million residents, Charlotte’s population alone creates a large demand for new and innovative cancer treatments. As the largest in the Carolinas, Charlotte’s medical patient base is comparable to those of some of the country’s largest university research medical centers.
Outstanding Healthcare SystemsThe Charlotte region’s three outstanding healthcare systems are able to leverage Charlotte’s patient base for important clinical research. The Blumenthal, Presbyterian, and Batte Cancer Centers are actively engaged in national clinical trials for promising new cancer treatments. Consistent institutional investments in tate-of-the-art medical technology for tumor treatment (i.e., radiosurgery), gifted cancer care physicians and research faculty represent a robust clinical foundation for cancer research in Charlotte.
Basic science research
UNC Charlotte, the Charlotte region’s research university, is an emerging force in basic science research. Over the last five years, UNC Charlotte has invested over $100 million in life science research in faculty research talent, lab space and new buildings. With strengths in cancer research, liver research, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics and health services, UNC Charlotte is positioned to play a strong role as the basic science research partner in helping raise the level of healthcare in the Charlotte community. UNC Charlotte has increased the size of its cancer research faculty over the last few years with plans for continued growth.
Why now?The potential has never been greater for finding more effective treatments and even cures for cancer and other diseases. Biomedical research has seen historic advances in the last 10 years with the mapping of the human genome, powerful imaging technology, and the ability to study proteins at work in the cell. Because of this, biomedical discovery over the next two decades is projected to occur at a revolutionary pace, surpassing the rate of progress of the last decade and moving in a new direction of personalized versus standard cancer treatment.
As a young and entrepreneurial institution, UNC Charlotte is positioned well to grow nimbly and intentionally in this new direction. UNC Charlotte is strategically evolving into a problem-oriented interdisciplinary research enterprise of the future. Building on its strengths in bioinformatics and cancer biology, it has significant potential to make an impact on the development of individual-versus-population based cancer therapeutics.
For more information, please contact:
Clare Cook Faggart
Life Sciences Program Manager