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  • Department of Cancer Biology

    The Department of Cancer Biology focuses on fundamental problems in biology of relevance to cancer.

    Research goals and themes

    Thomas Roberts, PhD, Co-ChairThomas Roberts, PhD, Co-Chair
    charles-stiles.jpgRosalind Segal, MD, PhD, Co-Chair

    The overarching goal of the Department is to translate laboratory findings into the development of new therapeutic strategies. Departmental strengths in the leading-edge technologies of structural, systems, and chemical biology facilitate the translation of biology-based investigations in neurobiology, women's cancers, and energy homeostasis. Expertise in signal transduction and cell cycle control has contributed directly and indirectly to a new generation of targeted therapeutics for cancer (a.k.a. "smart drugs"), such as imatinib (Gleevec) and gefitinib (Iressa).

    Departmental growth

    The Department has grown over the past three years, as measured both by grant support and number of independent faculty. Collectively, the research support portfolio grew to more than $32.6 million for fiscal year 2015, compared to $31.9 million for 2012. Two new faculty have joined the department since 2008, bringing the number of independent department faculty to 23. Eric Fischer, PhD, and Sara Buhrlage, PhD, were recruited as part of the Dana-Farber strategic plan initiative in Cancer Chemical Biology. They join Nathanael Gray, PhD, in the new Longwood Center.

    Structural biology

    Michael Eck, MD, PhD, specializes in X-ray crystallography of kinases. In collaboration with investigators from Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center's Lung Cancer Program, Eck has determined the structure of patient-derived EGFR mutants to propose mechanisms of tumor response to therapy and drug resistance. Jarrod Marto, PhD, develops mass spectroscopy techniques to optimize detection and characterization of phosphoproteins. William Shih, PhD, constructs nanoscale objects and nanomechanical devices based on DNA molecules. He uses these to interrogate and modulate the operation of cells. Stephen Blacklow, PhD, investigates the Notch pathway in the pathogenesis of T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia and uses structural and other approaches to inhibit it. Eric Fischer, PhD, studies the pathways and protein complexes at the crossroads of fundamental cellular disposal systems using structural biology approaches.

    a researcher in a lab  

    Systems biology

    Marc Vidal, PhD, director of Dana-Farber's Center for Cancer Systems Biology, uses powerful techniques in genetics and computational biology to map the genetic and protein networks that control cell behavior. He applies this information in a predictive manner to identify new pathways for therapeutic intervention. Suzanne Gaudet, PhD, takes a quantitative approach to measuring and analyzing the response of single cells to drugs and other extracellular signals.

    Chemical biology

    The chemical biology group brings departmental expertise in early-stage drug discovery and translates insights on protein structure and function into entry-level screens for new cancer therapeutics. Nathanael Gray, PhD, develops libraries of small-molecule kinase inhibitor compounds and collaborates widely with disease program investigators. Their goal is to use these libraries to define therapeutic targets in tumors. Sara Buhrlage, PhD, utilizes the techniques of chemical biology to study protein homeostasis in cancers.


    Another group of Cancer Biology faculty focuses on the genetics of brain development. Qiufu Ma, PhD, identifies and characterizes transcription factors that regulate the formation of sensory neurons and create neural networks for the perception of pain. Charles Stiles, PhD, focuses on genes that direct the formation of the glial lineages in the brain, while Rosalind Segal, MD, PhD, describes interactions between cells in the brain that lead to cell proliferation or migration. The outcomes of these studies will lead to new insights about treatments for brain cancer, one of the most deadly and untreatable forms of cancer.

    Women's cancers

    The biology of women's cancers, particularly breast cancer, is another area of focus for faculty in the Department. David Livingston, MD, who is also deputy director of DF/HCC, defines the functions of breast cancer susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Jean Zhao, PhD, who is also co-director of the DF/HCC Breast Cancer Program, and Thomas Roberts, PhD, utilize both mouse models and chemical biology to determine the specific roles of various kinases, including the catalytic isoforms of PI3K in both normal physiology and cancer. Peter Sicinski, MD, PhD, characterizes the roles of cell cycle regulators in cancer, and Sasha Gimelbrant, PhD, probes the mechanisms of epigentic silencing of gene expression.

    Energy homeostasis

    Energy homeostasis is the area of investigation for Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, Nika Danial, PhD, and Pere Puigserver, PhD. Spiegelman defines the transcriptional programs governing development of adipocytes, as well as their roles in regulating energy balance and homeostasis. Danial determines the functions of BCL2 family proteins that operate at the intersection of metabolic and cell death pathways. Puigserver identifies the transcriptional mechanisms that regulate metabolic and longevity pathways.

    Teaching the next generation of scientists

    Teaching is an important complement to our research activities. Collectively, the Department has trained 305 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students during the past three years. Students from many Harvard-based graduate programs – including Biomedical and Biological Sciences, Biophysics, Virology, and Neurobiology – complete their doctoral theses in the Department's many laboratories. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows participate in informal weekly seminars and the annual departmental retreat.

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