Connector: Q&A with Bob Strausberg
The Ludwig Institute’s deputy scientific director talks about the most promising avenues of cancer research today.
How did you get into science?
I have always loved science. I would go off with my two younger sisters to the bookstore and wander into the science section and buy books on biology. I was absolutely fascinated by nature as a problem-solver. I love genetics, too, because there is such preciseness to it. I was the first one in my family to get a PhD and build a scientific career. I’ve always pursued things in my heart that just felt right and I’ve never regretted the decision to pursue science. And I’m still inspired by it every day because I chose to do what I love to do.
Tell us about your early career.
When I started my career, things were very different. Many of the tools of modern biology had not yet been developed. What we tended to do was work on simpler systems. I worked on baker’s yeast, a much simpler system but one that shares many characteristics with cells of more complex organisms, including humans. I got my PhD, did my postdoc and then became an assistant professor of biology at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas, and continued to pursue my research. I enjoyed teaching, and had great undergrad students. But then I made this abrupt switch from an academic career to joining a company called Genex Corporation. I became engaged in projects where we were trying to develop vaccines, biomaterials, and therapies using yeast. There I learned that my platform had many practical applications and this allowed me to pursue a diversity of biology, which is really my interest. I also learned about the remarkable benefits of team-based science. In looking back at my career, it’s always been about collaboration and interdisciplinary science, which I find very invigorating. You benefit from many people’s knowledge and can be part of a big common goal.
How did you get into cancer research?
My entry into cancer research was an unusual one. When I was at Genex, people who knew me were starting the Human Genome Project, and they were interested in having me come to it because I had some of the technical knowledge that would be required, and I knew how to work with industry. They wanted somebody who could bring together teams of people from academia and industry. That’s how I started working on the Human Genome Project, developing sequencing technologies. I learned a lot about doing team science on a truly international scale with the best scientists in the world. It’s from there that I entered cancer research because, at that time, people were just beginning to think about cancer genomics. With that, I had the opportunity to meet the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the time, who was Richard Klausner, and he asked if I’d work directly with him and start the cancer genomics program for the NCI. So I didn’t start in cancer research as a scientist beginning a career, as is usually the case, but by being thrown onto one of the biggest platforms in the world, working with the director of the NCI, on what was probably the most visible program at the NCI back then.
Looking back at your career now, what is the most surprising decision you made?
Going to work for a biotech was the real surprising decision. There was nothing in my academic training that would have said to do that. I always thought that prestige came from having an academic career. I like basic biology but I really like to be a problem solver, to do something that has more direct applications. I was thinking about this at a time when the big biotechs, like Genentech and Biogen, were just starting, and the genes for human growth hormone and insulin had been cloned. Now, I was pretty shy, and people would never have guessed I’d make these career leaps but, surprisingly, I did. The experience helped me realize that if you choose a certain career path, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck on that path forever.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
There have been quite a few good moments but I think it would probably have to be when I was given responsibility for the Cancer Genome Anatomy Project that was created by the NCI. It was pretty thrilling to be standing next to former Vice President Al Gore at the press conference when he introduced the project. Basically, we generated a wide range of genomics data on cancerous cells accessible through easy-to-use online tools. Researchers, educators and students were able to find answers in silico to biological questions through the website. Characterizing cancer at a molecular level with readily accessible and up-to-date data and a new set of tools was a completely different way of doing science. I think it actually inspired the next generation with what’s going on now with big science and big data.
What are your favorite hobbies or interests?
I love music and going to concerts to enjoy it live. I’m interested in all sorts of music. I like going with the flow and learning about new things, and when it comes to music, this has helped me build relationships as I was growing up and, later, with my children. When I was in college, living in New Jersey, my friend and I saw this poster one weekend for a festival in Woodstock. We didn’t know what it was all about, but we went and bought a ticket, and drove up there in a Rambler with a big peace symbol on the back. I have always been open to different genres. My son’s very interested in all kinds of alternative music, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recent years going to ska concerts and punk rock festivals. I also like Broadway musicals. I admire the creativity of musicians, and it reminds me of the creativity of scientists. Many kinds of music are collaborations and require teamwork, and everything comes together to make something way different from what you’d get with a solo musician.
What do you see as the major barriers to progress in cancer research?
Science and technology are on fast-forward but we’re not connecting all the dots with each scientific advance. We’re not doing a good enough job of asking, what are the real lessons learned? Who can we bring together? Who should be working together? Our real mission is to help cancer patients, but we can do a better job of building connectivity among our teams of scientists and their research to make more of an impact in that way. We need to put the idea of team science—collaborative, interdisciplinary research, which has become central to scientific discovery—into practice. Team science is great in theory but so hard in practice. Another cultural problem is that researchers are—understandably—reluctant to take risks. A lot of research one sees is only slightly different but mainly ‘me too.’ One of the things I think about is, what are the bold steps we can take? Can we do team based science that will really have a big impact? It may take a long time, but it can also pay off in a big way. That was one of the things that attracted me to Ludwig, which has a history of doing that kind of thing, of taking big steps.
What do you see as the most promising areas of cancer research today?
Immunotherapy has had a huge impact. I feel like cancer meetings today are way different than they were just four years ago. Back then, all the talk was about small molecules targeting a gene, and there was this sense that this is still going to be very difficult, and every drug is going to get resistance. Then immunotherapy came along, and while there is appropriate caution about claiming cures, physicians and researchers are talking about durable responses and the fact is there are people now living who, a few years ago, would have died. Not everybody benefits, but it has changed the thinking a little from, ‘every cancer is different and we have to have a designer approach for each type’, to maybe doing things with immunotherapy that can have an impact on a broad range of cancers. The other major interest of mine has been a step-child in the field for a long time: how we prevent cancer. We know from other diseases that prevention is the most effective approach. The biggest advances have been things like clean drinking water and vaccines. May be we can come up with simple solutions that will help people not just here but in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well.
What is Ludwig doing in the area of cancer prevention?
Ludwig launched a research program in partnership with the Hilton Foundation to advance dietary interventions and technologies for the prevention of colon cancer [see page 14]. Researchers from Ludwig Johns Hopkins, Ludwig MSK and Ludwig Oxford are bringing their expertise in a range of disciplines critical to this program. We’ve developed strong partnerships with Cancer Research UK and the City of Hope and conducted a major outreach to other organizations that are also involved in the area of prevention, like the World Health Organization, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council UK. My role is to facilitate this program and provide context about what we are trying to accomplish. Our goal is to bring major researchers to this important area, and also provide leadership and partnership with organizations and researchers throughout the world.
What excites you about the future of Ludwig?
If you look at Ludwig, we’re not one of the biggest cancer organizations in the world, but we’re privileged in that we do have resources to work with. We don’t have to go out and raise new funds for everything we want to do. We can and should be risk-takers. That’s what has always excited me about Ludwig. We don’t have to do what everybody else is doing. So we need to think smart and maximize our impact with the funds we have, doing things that even the NCI might not do with the billions of dollars at their disposal each year. What excites me is we can think in a bold way and bring the best scientists to a problem and support them for the long-term. I like that even though our scientists publish a lot of good papers, we don’t measure them solely on that basis. We are committed to making a difference for people. That’s what brought me to Ludwig. I’m excited we have a new scientific director who will help us take a fresh look at where Ludwig has been, where we are now, and make sure we are pursuing the bold mission that we really should be undertaking.
You are one of the few leaders of this organization who has started to use social media more actively. What are the benefits of being engaged?
I didn’t grow up with social media but I’ve come to appreciate many aspects of it, especially in building connections and community. My Twitter account has become an important information source for me and has helped me select a community of people who share my research interests. I value the real-time interaction of Twitter and when I go onto the Ludwig feed and retweet something I like, I’m also able to see who else is retweeting it, reinforcing that sense of community. We hear about important papers on Twitter as soon as they are released, or even before, so tweeting allows us to communicate actual science and not just news.
Who are the scientists, living or dead, that you admire?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with many visionary scientists. In particular I would mention Lloyd Old who had a very big impact on me. He was a true gentleman and a very caring man. He was an unconventional visionary who pursued an area of science—tumor immunology—that was not a very popular avenue of research. But he never gave up, as he truly believed in the power of the immune response to fight cancer. Lloyd enriched my life as he did so many others and I’m better off for having known him.