Raising the bar

The field of cancer biology has taken incredible leaps forward in recent years, but these advances are just the first steps toward the ultimate goal of preventing and curing cancer. It will fall to the next generation of research scientists to turn that goal into reality.

The University of Arizona Cancer Center not only prides itself as a top-notch clinical care facility and research institute, but also as a leading education and training resource. The Cancer Biology Training Grant was federally funded in 1978, with Eugene Gerner, PhD, as principal investigator.

In 1985, Dr. Gerner, along with G. Timothy Bowden, PhD, and Jeffrey Trent, PhD, FACMG, organized the proposal for a new graduate program and obtained a planning grant from the University of Arizona in 1988. Graduate Interdisciplinary Program Coordinator Anne Cione was also vital in administering the key features that went on to become the foundation for this program.

From this grant, the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program was established in 1988. Dr. Gerner served as program chair from 1988-92. Dr. Bowden led the program for nearly two decades (1992-2011), and was instrumental in shaping the CBIO program into what it is today.

The goal of this program is to harness the collective passion and experience of the researchers already making major breakthroughs at the UACC so it can be imparted on bright, idealistic students looking to make breakthroughs of their own.

“The idea behind this program was to create this pipeline of researchers that will look to find the next great therapies for treating cancer, as well as understand the mechanisms of how cancer develops so we can learn to prevent it before it starts,” said current Cancer Biology Program Chair and UACC Chief Scientific Officer Jesse Martinez, PhD.

Twenty-five years later, the Cancer Biology Program has established itself among the nation’s most well-respected training programs, graduating 74 doctoral students with the exemplary research skills necessary to join the fight against cancer.

“What I loved most about this program is that the mentors set a high standard for their students, and they expect them to achieve it,” Dr. Fortin Ensign said. “It really pushed me to be the best scientist I could be.”

Dr. Fortin Ensign graduated from the CBIO Program this spring and will return to the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix to complete her medical degree. She, like her fellow CBIO graduates, is among the most sought-after young biomedical researchers in the United States.

“There is a lot of respect nationwide for the UA Cancer Biology program,” said Nhan Tran, PhD. “CBIO students looking for positions in academia or in the biomedical industry have a big advantage, because people know they will be very well trained, and they already have a built-in networking system.”

Dr. Tran speaks from experience. He is a product of the UA’s Cancer Biology Program (class of 2002), where he studied the mechanisms of prostate cancer. He served as one of Dr. Fortin Ensign’s primary mentors. Dr. Tran, now the head of the CNS Tumor Research Lab at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix and research assistant professor at the UA, pushed Dr. Fortin Ensign to publish as much original research as possible.

“My motto is publish or perish,” Dr. Tran said.

Dr. Fortin Ensign used that rigorous writing schedule to her advantage, approaching the challenge as an opportunity to expand not only her knowledge base, but also to take calculated risks, knowing she had a strong support system behind her.

Mentorship is a two-way street, as well. Dr. Tran explained that the students are often responsible for some of the most insightful, creative thinking, in large part because students often approach an issue with a new set of eyes and a new angle of thinking.

“Students are a truly vital part of the research process, as they often challenge the research their mentors put forth,” Dr. Tran said. “We learn as much from them as they learn from us.”

Programs such as these are facing tough economic times, however.

“One of the truly wonderful aspects of the UA Cancer Center is that there are more than 100 pre- and post-doc students in our research facility on a daily basis, thanks to our major training efforts,” said UACC Director David Alberts, MD. “One of the things I'm most worried about, with the trends we’re currently seeing in the federal budget, is a reduction of funding for training, which would mean we lose our next generation of scientists.”

The goal of a cancer-free future is within reach, but it will be up to the next generation of biomedical scientists to achieve it.

-Nick Prevenas, June 19, 2013