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Vol. 3, No. 2                                                                                                          Jan. 22, 2020

Cancer Institute Member Spotlight

Donghoon Yoon, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Internal Medicine
UAMS College of Medicine
Faculty, Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences

Dr. Yoon's research investigates the pathophysiology of multiple myeloma, a B cell cancer characterized by proliferation of malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow, presence of monoclonal serum immunoglobulin and osteolytic lesions. Read more>
Get to Know Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D.
After about one month on the job, Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., sat down to share his thoughts about the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute’s research program and his vision for moving the institute toward its goal of NCI Designation. Birrer serves as vice chancellor, director of the Cancer Institute and director of the Cancer Service Line.

What is the focus of your research and how long have you worked in this area?
I earned my M.D., Ph.D. at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, so I was trained as a
physician scientist. I performed my fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, and I had a decision to make at that point: Do I stay in immunology, which is what my Ph.D. was in, or should I do something different?

This was right at the time when the field of molecular genetics was exploding, so I decided I would switch to molecular biology. I started out in lung cancer with Dr. John Minna at the National Cancer Institute.

I was junior faculty at that time, and when the branch needed a medical oncologist to sit on the GYN Cancer Tumor Board, I volunteered. I began to learn more about endometrial, ovarian and cervical cancers and found it absolutely fascinating. That occurred in the mid-90s.

From there, my lab really began to focus on trying to understand the molecular underpinnings of these tumors and translating that information into better therapeutic interventions. My lab is highly translational.
What’s the status of your lab at the Cancer Institute?
We’re getting set up. It’s a beautiful, very impressive lab space. I am in the process of looking for technicians, postdocs and a lab manager. Along with graduate students, we could easily have a lab with 10 people. Our research is fully funded by NIH/NCI, at least until 2023.
What research findings or milestones would you like to share?
The field of ovarian cancer research has really exploded in the last five years. The Cancer Genome Atlas study showed us the molecular features of ovarian cancer. Now, the challenge is to take those features and translate them into more effective therapies, and that’s already happening.

A whole new class of drugs known as PARP inhibitors were just approved for ovarian cancer and are based upon understanding the molecular biology of that tumor. Our patients are now living longer than five years from diagnosis. When I started training, it was 11 months. Patients are doing better, and we’re probably curing a few patients, as well.

My guess is that the field will continue changing rapidly over the next three to five years, and we'd like to contribute to that.
What are the Cancer Institute’s research strengths, and where is potential for growth?
There's complete alignment all the way up the chain, including Chancellor Patterson, Dean Westfall and even the state Legislature and Gov. Hutchinson, that it is essential to invest in the Cancer Institute. That is a great strength we have right now.
Another positive is our absolutely wonderful facility, along with a cadre of very dedicated researchers and clinicians. My job is to significantly increase the bench by hiring 20 to 30 lab-based researchers in about two years’ time. The hope is that a lot of them will come in with millions of dollars of NIH funding.

I would like to see Hematology Oncology double or triple in size. We certainly have the patients to sustain that, and I’m very impressed with our physicians. They work almost 24/7 to take care of their patients.

I also have to acknowledge our Myeloma Center as one of our strengths. It’s one of our strongest programs and is internationally recognized for its research and clinical programs.
One place I see that’s ripe for future growth is in women’s cancers. I'm thinking about creating a program specifically focused on women's cancers, to include breast and GYN.
What can our researchers do to support the Cancer Institute’s goal of achieving NCI Designation?
The practical issue is that we need our talented researchers to get NIH/NCI R01s, collaborative U01s and U54 grants. The bigger issue is the need both to strategically hire and engage current researchers to form synergistic research programs. That’s what the NCI wants to see, and that's how you move research forward.

Team science is now recognized as the way research should be done. For instance, we want the researcher in microbiology looking at bacteria to think about doing work on the microbiome and collaborating with bioinformatics and the sequencers, and even the clinicians within those cancers. It’s my job to foster that.
What else would you like our researchers to know?
This is a great time to be at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. We’re going to grow with talented people, and we're going to fund great, innovative ideas. So if they have ideas, bring them forward.
I hope that in a short period of time we’ll receive NCI Designation. Designation means a lot of things. First of all, it means to patients that the quality of care here is at a certain level, so that's important.
But it's also important for researchers. If you want to recruit great graduate students and great postdocs, and you want to have fellow researchers of a certain quality, designation will attract them. It’s a logical choice, and I am completely convinced we will achieve that in a short period of time.
NIH Career Path Guides
NIH has developed interactive guides for how NIH can help you become a physician scientist or research scientist. Check them out and share with your colleagues, students and mentees who could benefit from this information.

These guides are not only helpful for mapping out how NIH can support a career path, they also indicate the critical funding mechanisms for various stages in career development. 
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