HOUSTON - (Oct. 3, 2012) - Acknowledged for a career dedicated to combating a disease expected to claim the lives of almost 600,000 Americans this year, the 2012 Distinguished Alumnus for The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston has a basic mantra when it comes to cancer research.
“For cancer research to be most effective, it must wage war against this disease at every level, from cells to society,” said Steven Patierno, Ph.D., who will be honored as this year’s distinguished alumnus on Nov. 16 in the Texas Medical Center. The graduate school is a joint program of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Cancer, a disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues in individuals, impacts patients, their families and their communities, as well as the national and world health systems. “We must develop trans-disciplinary approaches to overcome this disease at all levels,” said Patierno, who is the deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute and a professor of medicine at the Duke University Medical Center.
His contributions to cancer research span the continuum of discovery from environmental oncology and cancer causation, to experimental therapeutics and drug discovery, to cancer disparities at both the community and genomic levels, to health services research and to cancer survivorship and patient navigation.
“My career in research has taken many different turns,” Patierno said. “I started out trying to understand the molecular basis for how environmental chemicals damage DNA and start the process of cancer formation. I then moved into studying how cells respond to DNA damage and how they alter their own characteristics to become resistant to death.”
Along the way, Patierno and his colleagues at the George Washington University Medical Center, where he served as director of the GW Cancer Institute and Professor of Pharmacology before moving to Duke, also used a “cells-to-society” approach in studying the biology and genomics of prostate cancer. They used human prostate cancer cell lines and biopsy samples from diverse populations.
One discovery involved a protein called uteroglobin (UG). While plenty of UG can be found in healthy prostates, the protein is in short supply in cancerous prostates and its loss seems to correlate with increased tumor aggressiveness. Treatment of tumor cells with recombinant UG markedly inhibited tumor cell growth and invasiveness. This discovery led to 10 issued patents that were licensed for clinical translation by a pharmaceutical company.
Patierno grew interested in cancer disparities, the unequal burden of cancer among different populations and the medically underserved. Once again using a genomics approach, he and his colleagues at GW and now Duke have discovered a number of gene expression networks that are differentially dysregulated in prostate cancer from African Americans compared to Caucasians. These discoveries are expected to reveal new molecular targets for prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
His career took an unexpected turn into population sciences and health services when he became principal investigator for a National Cancer Institute-funded, multi-center, five-year trial to test the efficacy of patient navigation, a relatively new tier of health care work focused on helping people overcome barriers to accessing quality cancer care. As a result of that research and other innovative programs he launched to combat health inequities in the District of Columbia, Patierno has emerged as a leading national voice in cancer health disparities and evidence-based policy.
Patierno said his teachers and the training he received at the graduate school had an impact on his career.
“I conducted my graduate studies with Dr. Max Costa but Drs. George Stancel, Peter Davies and Ralph Arlinghaus also had a major impact on my scientific worldview,” Patierno said. “The graduate school taught me to ask good questions about important problems and not accept the status quo about any so-called scientific dogma.”
Patierno’s interest in experimental therapeutics goes back to his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy.
“I applied to the graduate school to study molecular neuro-pharmacology and neuro-toxicology under Drs. G. Alan Robison and Sheldon Murphy. Sometime in the first few months I attended a seminar at the MD Anderson Cancer Institute by a leading cancer expert near the beginning of the molecular revolution of cancer research, which tells you about how old I am. It really intrigued me and I switched to cancer research and never turned back,” he said.
Stancel, now executive vice president for academic and research affairs and holder of the Roger J. Bulger, M.D. Distinguished Professorship at UTHealth, said, “He was one of our outstanding students. He went on to accomplish much in the area of cancer research. He is recognized worldwide as a leader in cancer causation and carcinogenesis. ”
More than 2,000 scientists received their training at the graduate school and have contributed to the care of a wide variety of diseases, said UTHealth professor Michael Blackburn, Ph.D., who jointly serves as dean with MD Anderson professor Michelle Barton, Ph.D.
“What we are doing is giving back to the community with our work in the sciences,” Barton said.
Patierno said a key to being a good scientist is the “ability to analyze the results of what appears to be a failed experiment and discern important information that either refines the existing way of thinking or opens up a whole new way of thinking about the problem.”
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