‘Cancer doesn’t take a day off’
Ludwig San Diego investigator Frank Furnari on the “extraordinary advantages in fostering collaborations” that come from a global research institute.
Who is Frank Furnari? Scientist, researcher, teacher, mentor, team leader and dad. These are some of the monikers that describe the Senior Investigator and UCSD Professor of Pathology at the Ludwig San Diego Branch. Frank leads the Section of Human Carcinogenesis in the Tumor Biology Laboratory, headed by Web Cavenee. For him, science is a team sport. Frank adheres to several key principles in monitoring and maintaining the success of the team.
Tell us a little bit about your history with LICR. How did you first come to hear of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research?
In 1991-92, while I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and thinking about where I’d like to do my postdoctoral work, one of my committee members, Buddy Weissman, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UNC, suggested I talk to Web Cavenee who had just moved the Ludwig Branch from Montreal to San Diego.
Web was doing pioneering work on the mechanisms of cancer predisposition and progression. I wanted to take my career in that direction and get involved in what was a relatively new field. Tumor suppressor genes were just starting to be studied and understood, the first one being retinoblastoma, an area that Web was spearheading.
What makes the Ludwig Institute unique?
The Ludwig Institute is a formidable global research entity. Over the past 18 years, I’ve come to realize there’s no scientific question too big or complex that can’t be addressed by the talent that makes up the Institute.
The Institute is synonymous with research excellence and filled with dedicated, mission-oriented people. I think of it as an organization that looks ‘over the horizon.’ Eliminating cancer has always been an institute-wide pursuit, and being able to work toward helping to decrease the suffering and the toll cancer takes is very important to me.
If you could make one change at the Institute, what would it be?
More cowbell! Seriously—more of the programmatic-type meetings like the one held at the end of September in Oxford. These meetings are instrumental in forging partnerships and exchanging ideas. They can often yield impressive results and be the genesis of solutions. I returned to San Diego with new collaborations and new insights into my work as well as the work of other participants.
Coming out of the recent meeting, we’re going to be looking at CT antigens with individuals in New York and undertaking some collaborative work with colleagues in São Paulo and Brussels. In fact, we just hosted a post doc from São Paulo in the lab for the past eight weeks. These experiences remind us that being part of a global institute has extraordinary advantages in fostering collaborations that allow us to tackle the tough problems and work towards solutions.
Congratulations on your Award for Excellence in Translational Research from the Society of Neuro-oncology. Was it awarded for a specific piece of your research? Tell us more about the award and the research.
I received the award for an abstract entitled PTEN phosphorylation by fibroblast growth factor receptors and SRC mediates resistance to epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors in glioblastoma. Our lab has focused mainly on the mechanisms of why brain tumors are so difficult to treat even though we have great targets such as the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). But invariably, even with small molecules that target mutations such as EGFR or pathways of this receptor, these tumors find ways to become resistant.
A postdoc in the lab, Timothy Fenton, discovered that one such mechanism of resistance was a specific posttranslational modification on the PTEN tumor suppressor gene, which could mimic genetic inactivation of this gene, thus rendering tumor cells insensitive to therapeutics targeting EGFR.
Can you describe in layman’s terms your particular area of research?
Our lab works on glioblastomas (GBM), which are among the most common and devastating primary brain tumors that affect adults. These tumors grow rapidly, invade nearby tissue and contain cells that are very malignant. We’ve been investigating mutations that increase the malignancy of these types of tumors and right now the lab is working on how we can improve the therapeutics for those patients who suffer from these tumors.
GBM tumors kill patients within 12 to 15 months and current therapeutics extend survival by only a couple of weeks or months. It has been a harsh reality in this field to measure advances in glioblastoma patient survival in weeks, not in months or years as in other types of cancers.
Despite progress being slow, I’m convinced we’ll know a lot more about the targets we should be pursuing in GBM in the coming decade, which will translate into more effective therapeutics.
What role does technology play in your research?
A great deal. The Institute is constantly keeping up with the newest technologies. We use various imaging techniques to monitor tumors before, during, and after treatment to assess therapeutic response. The Branch has just acquired a new piece of equipment that will allow us to do in vivo imaging of brain tumors in animals.
Now we have an instrument that allows us to follow tumor growth in real time. We can image the tumors as often as we want, see them growing and create a three-dimensional snapshot at what’s happening.
We can also treat these mice with therapeutics and look at the consequences on tumor growth. This type of technology really opens the door for us to be able to better assess how well the therapeutics are doing without having to surgically open the skull of the mouse and look at the tumor site.
What advances do you see in the coming decade as a result of the work you’re doing?
Approximately 13,000 Americans die of malignant brain tumors every year, about 2% of all U.S. cancer deaths. Every patient’s tumor is unique. In order to develop effective treatments, we must first figure out the initial genetic errors that lead a cell to become cancerous. We have the technology to completely sequence and understand the compendium of mutations in an individual’s tumor, and in the future, we’ll be able to tailor therapeutics specific to a patient’s tumor profile.
You were born in Queens, attended Hofstra and received your Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and subsequently became a postdoc in Web Cavenee’s laboratory. Do you miss New York?
I do miss New York and don’t visit as often as I used to. My first job out of college was as a research technician at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center working with John Mendelsohn. It was a wonderful experience for a 21-year-old kid fresh out of college experiencing the city and one of its premier research environments. One major advantage was that the hospital was right there and offered a lot of interaction with the patients.
What are the biggest misconceptions about scientists?
That we wear white socks and our pants are too short. The truth is that sometimes we wear black socks. People do have a lot of misconceptions about scientists and I think part of this is due to the fact that scientists are rarely celebrated in the mainstream media, and there’s a perceived lack of fame, fortune or excitement associated with a scientific career.
We don’t talk much about science and mathematics in this country and people don’t understand what scientists do. Even when I tell friends or family members that I’m a scientist and work in cancer biology, the first question they always ask is not what do I do, but how close we are to curing cancer.
What qualities do you think distinguish scientists from other professions?
Cancer doesn’t take a day off. Scientists rarely take a day off; it’s a profession that never stops. You’re constantly monitoring experiments, answering emails, and writing grants and papers.
When not working in the lab, what do you do?
I’m a family man and love spending time with my raisons d’être, my wife and daughter. My daughter is almost 16 and the teenage years are going by very quickly. The time is rapidly approaching when she’ll be in college and I cherish the time we spend together.
Is there anything else you think is important, or that you would like to share with the readers?
I’d like to pay tribute to my family and heritage. I’m a second-generation Italian American and the first one in my family to graduate from college. My grandparents came to this country from Italy in the early 1900’s with less than $50. Theirs was a quintessentially American narrative of faith, family, and hard work. I admire their passion for this country and the opportunities it provided them. Their drive and perseverance taught me valuable lessons about life and the entrepreneurial spirit. That drive and perseverance has translated into my work and have been mainstays in the way I approach the rigors of science.