Recently in Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Category

AR Graphic 3.jpgBy Mary Jane Schier, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Andria Schibler hopes the yeast she uses every day will do much more than make bread dough rise. Her ultimate goal is to help improve leukemia patients' survival.

Instead of a kitchen, Schibler works in a laboratory at MD Anderson's Science Park in Smithville, Texas. Her tools include test tubes, incubators and beakers.

Schibler, whose parents were both school teachers, intended to be a marine biologist when she went to Suffolk University in Boston, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in biology. But during an internship at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, she got hooked on molecular biology.

"After learning about MD Anderson, I applied to GSBS (Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences) ... and moved to Houston in August 2007. I've never been so hot," she relates.

Schibler took rotations with several MD Anderson scientists who train students at GSBS, which is jointly operated by MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She was delighted when Sharon Dent, Ph.D., then professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, agreed to be her mentor.

For the second year, MD Anderson has hosted graduate students from the University of Tokyo for two months of research. A lively, video-linked symposium marking the end of this year's visit was held Aug. 20. Participants included the students and MD Anderson faculty who hosted them, as well as faculty from the Schools of Engineering, Medicine and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Todai, short for Tokyo Daigaku as the University of Tokyo is also known. 

GAP_UTokyo2010.JPGThe program is run by the Center for Medical Systems Innovation (CMSI) at Todai. CMSI embodies a novel, cross-disciplinary approach to training and research on the boundary of medicine and engineering, with elements of social sciences and business rolled in.

I attended the CMSI Annual Meeting earlier this year and was impressed to see not only a wide range of innovative science and engineering projects, but also business plan presentations by the CMSI students. Equally creative, but thinking in a different way, the students identified needs and were proposing commercially viable solutions to them.

This year the students who visited us, and the research projects they worked on, were:

  • Yusuke Egashira, Mentor: Dr. Ritsuko Komaki, Radiation Oncology Treatment
    Experimental Evaluation of Dose Calculation Algorithms for Proton Therapy

  • Hitomi Hosoya, Mentor: Drs. Renata Pasqualini and Wadih Arap, Genitourinary Med Oncology-Research 
    Multi-platform, Ligand-Directed Delivery of Doxorubicin for Cancer Therapy
  • Mariko Ikuo, Mentor: Dr. George Calin, Experimental Therapeutics
    Plasma microRNA of Chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients

  • Hiroki Akiba, Mentor: Dr. Juri Gelovani, Experimental Diagnostic Imaging
    Construction of Reporter System for Monitoring HIF-1 Dimerization

  • Minghui Bai, Mentor: Dr. Oliver Bogler, Neurosurgery and Neuro-Oncology
    Importin beta1 and CRM1 are involved in nuclear cytoplasmic shuttling of EGFRvIII
  • Shinya Hirota, Mentor: Dr. Joseph McCarty, Cancer Biology
    alphaVbeta8 integrin-mediated TGFbeta activation and signaling is essential for angiogenesis in the neonatal retina

For the first time this year, two MD Anderson students, from the Pasqualini/Arap lab, traveled to Tokyo for the summer: 

  • Julianna Edwards, Mentor: Dr. Tatsuro Irimura, University of Tokyo
    Characterizing the mechanism of action of a mitogenic, lectin-like, synthetic polymer

  • Lawrence Bronk, Mentor: Dr. Kazunori Kataoka, University of Tokyo 
    ICG Encapsulating Micelle for Photodynamic Therapy and Photodynamic Diagnosis

MD Anderson graduate students interested in participating next summer, by applying to visit Tokyo, are encouraged to contact Gloria Da Roza in Global Academic Programs. 

The students who join this competitive CMSI program represent some of the best of the upcoming generation of scientists and innovators, and it is an honor for MD Anderson to be part of the CMSI exchange program. We hope that many of the CMSI-graduates will join us in our mission to fight cancer.


By Dawn Dorsey, Staff Writer

In science, both as a discipline and as a career, collaboration and connections are key.

sm_McCrea_Hong2.jpgWant to test that hypothesis? Just ask Ji Yeon Hong, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Science (GSBS) program at M. D. Anderson.

Hong, a student researcher in the lab of Pierre McCrea, Ph.D., recently co-authored a study that was published as a full article in the journal Nature. McCrea is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology..

"Fun and strange connections happen frequently in science," McCrea says. "For example, one might suddenly come to realize the research at hand is somehow intimately connected to earlier seemingly distinct work. Through collaboration and making the most of connections, these young researchers made a discovery that wasn't on anyone's radar screen."

Partnership Spawns New Interests

When Hong came to M. D. Anderson in 2005, she met Jae-il Park, Ph.D., then a GSBS student in McCrea's lab. They worked together for five months, developing a friendship and strong professional relationship.

Park moved on to a post-doctoral position at Stanford University, where he studies telomerase, a riboprotein complex that protects the integrity of chromosome ends. Defective telomerase may contribute to aging diseases and cancer.

From his graduate work at M. D. Anderson, Park knew the Wnt signaling pathway is central in development of cancer. Then, during his Stanford postdoctoral work in the lab of Steven Artandi, M.D., Ph.D., Park discovered the telomerase protein component TERT (telomerase reverse transcriptase) interacts with the gene BRG1 to activate Wnt- dependent gene promoters in cultured cells and mice.

To strengthen his findings, Park asked his friend and former colleague Hong to perform his experiments in frogs.

"I was a little worried his previous results might not be shown in frogs," Hong admits. "But when I finally got the data, I was so happy that I immediately ran to Dr. McCrea's office and showed him the results."

Although McCrea's lab doesn't usually study telomerase, this research opened a new avenue of scientific investigation for Hong.

"The Wnt signaling pathway is a very interesting topic, and it plays several roles in the development of cancer," she says. "I want to study more about it while I'm at M. D. Anderson, as well as during my future career."

Communication Is Essential

Hong and Park soon will submit another paper in which she's first author and he's second. McCrea says the friendship and scientific collaboration between the young researchers has opened new doors for both of them.

"Graduate school is a great time to develop relationships of this kind," he says.

McCrea's lab, which has been student-based for several years, includes five GSBS students and one post-doctoral researcher. High on the list of skills he imparts to them is effective professional communication. They write publications, organize figures and respond point-by-point to reviewer comments after submitting articles to journals. All under his watchful eye, of course.

"Fifty percent of being a good scientist is communication," he says. "One of the big lessons of graduate school is that you ultimately will be trying to put yourself in a competitive position, and effective communication is a big part of that."

Hong describes McCrea as a supportive, patient and active mentor.

"When I first joined this lab, I asked Dr. McCrea to tell me the most important thing that I need to learn during my Ph.D. degree," she says. "He told me it's critical thinking and the ability to see the big picture in my projects.

"Whenever I lose my critical thinking, have a failed experiment or blame my technique for an unsuccessful experiment, he guides me to think about my hypothesis and finally see the big picture."

Leukemia Studies Earned Claudia Miller NIH National Research Service Award

By Sara Farris, Staff Writer

Miller_Chandra.jpgBrownsville native Claudia Miller, Ph.D., credits her father, a science teacher, for cultivating her interest in research. She wanted to do something to help people, and it was during a summer program at the University of Utah where she realized that research would be her answer.

"The program at Utah showed me the impact I could have with my research and that I didn't have to be a doctor to help people," Miller says. "I chose cancer research because I lived in Houston, and I knew of M. D. Anderson's reputation, but most importantly because cancer is a disease that affects everyone in some way, either directly or indirectly."

As a student in The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS), Miller volunteered for two years with the school's outreach program, primarily working with and teaching disadvantaged youth in the classroom about science. She then served as coordinator for the program for four years.

Her commitment to science education, research and community service earned Miller the Butcher Award from the graduate school and led her to being selected as one of four President's Research Scholars. 

In 2004, after completing her master's degree and starting work on her doctorate, Claudia joined the lab of Joya Chandra, Ph.D., associate professor in the Children's Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson.

"Now that I've worked in Joya's lab for five years, I can honestly say that her students are the luckiest," Miller says. "She is an excellent mentor, and she has really made a difference in my life as a researcher, student and as a person."

Miller has given four oral presentations at AACR and one at the American Society of Hematology annual conference. She also has been the first author on two papers published in the journal Blood for her work with a novel proteasome inhibitor, NPI-0052.

Miller's and Chandra's latest research with NPI-0052 showed, for the first time, that the proteasome inhibitor shares similar functions as the histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor, vorinostat. These cross-over similarities between the two anti-cancer agents increased cell death in chronic lymphocytic leukemia five-fold in preclinical tests. For acute leukemia, the efficacy was even greater.

She was selected for the National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health based on her outstanding research in leukemia with proteasome inhibitors and HDAC inhibitors. The award is a fellowship grant that covers three years of research. 

"Claudia is a very special student. She is very meticulous and pays attention to detail, which is the key to success in scientific research," Chandra says. "She has a high standard for quality, is very motivated and interested in finding the answers through research, and she is always willing to take the time to share her expertise and teach others about her findings."

Miller has received her doctorate and continues to work in Chandra's lab.

By Dawn Dorsey, staff writer

Being an accomplished researcher demands painstaking adherence to detail and a firm grasp of the scientific method. But success also requires qualities more difficult to quantify -- independent thinking, integrity, and respect for science and people.

XIU_Li.jpgWhen he mentors a budding scientist, Keping Xie, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in M. D. Anderson's Departments of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology and Cancer Biology, models and nurtures these traits. As a staff research scientist in Xie's lab, Qiang Li, Ph.D., has learned his lessons well.

Li, who recently was first author on a paper in Cancer Research, received his doctorate this spring from The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS). The GSBS is a joint program of M. D. Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

A pivotal study

Li's study examined the role of transcription factor FoxM1b (mammalian forkhead box) in gastric cancer. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA and control the transfer of genetic information.

Among the findings was a strong correlation between FoxM1b and gastric cancer in humans. In mouse models, over-expression of FoxM1b significantly promoted growth and metastasis of gastric cancer cells, whereas decrease of FoxM1b expression by small interfering RNA had the opposite effect.

Although gastric cancer, also known as stomach cancer, is not common in the United States, this dangerous cancer is the second most prevalent around the world. In this country, 21,130 new cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 10,620 people will die from the disease.

"The underlying mechanism that causes gastric cancer is still unknown," Li says. "There is no effective therapy, especially for advanced disease. It's very important to identify why this cancer starts and grows and to develop drugs to treat it."

"These are very interesting findings," Xie says. "We suggest FOXM1b has a molecular connection with gastric cancer and drives it from low malignancy to high. In the future, this information may be a prognostic and diagnostic factor and provide a targeted therapy."

Personal traits are key

Xie says it's not enough for a researcher to know how to go through the motions of investigation.

"A scientist isn't just a machine that does experiments," he says. "A good scientist has to be a good person -- caring, honest, respectful, a team worker and a good leader. Integrity is the foundation."

Li, who received his master's degree from Shangai Medical University, was drawn to Xie's lab because of ample opportunity to be involved in a broad variety of translational research projects. He's worked in Xie's lab for six years and will remain for six months to finish his research and, he hopes, publish another paper.

"Dr. Xie is a role model to me," Li says. "He has given me a lot of inspiring guidance. We communicate a lot about my projects, and he is always available to answer questions or discuss ideas I have."

Independence sets him apart

Xie has been impressed with Li's work ethic, but he's even more pleased that Li shows independence and initiative.

"He's the No. 1 worker in the lab, and he knows how to design and perform research," Xie says. "But more importantly, he has good ideas and proposes projects. Independence is an essential quality. A lot of people can be researchers, but very few qualify to be principal investigators."

Summer at GSBS

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In a weak moment, I decided to join the 21st century and "blog" on issues for graduate students and advisors.  Summer is one of the most exciting and busy times for both.  For students having chosen a laboratory in which to pursue their degree, this is usually the first time to spend "full time" in the laboratory.  Those fancy experiments you read about in class- now you actually get to do them!  ... 24hrs a day!  If one is to find joy as a research scientist, surely it is in the thrill of seeing the result of a well-designed experiment for the first time, and possibly the first time anyone has seen such a result.  The senior student's notebook so chock full of data and notes looks less and less intimidating as you begin to develop data of your own.   

We advisors actually visit the lab more often, reacquainting ourselves with what a microscope actually looks like, and often musing about the "good ole days" when we did all of our experiments ourselves.  Far be it for me to put a damper on this excitement, but wizened professors never miss an opportunity to offer advice. 

So...summer often provides the best chances to think beyond the next experiment.  Meaning-read of course.  What professor does not advise you to be current with the literature?  But thinking and breathing deeply are even more advisable.  When you get that sought-after result, what is its context?  Does it move you toward a publication or does it move you toward a discovery? -Not always the same. Yet, thinking about where your data lead means thinking about where your career will lead you.  And advisors?  They (on rare occasion) have the time to think as well, and like nothing better than being interrupted from writing the latest modification to the latest animal protocol by students with new data, new ideas and even new problems.  Summer is an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the successful and failed experiments that led to all that gray hair.  So work hard, focus on the next experiment but gaze into the distance. And the balance?

 Kipling had it about right:  

"If you can dream, and not make dreams your master
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim..."

And those who might be reading this contemplating graduate school?  Summer is the time to think about where.  And, of course, I'd encourage you to think about us, part of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS). 

Find all the information you might want at:  And information not there?  Hopefully that will become the subject of future blogs.

Jer-Yen Yang's publications include a lead-authorship in Nature Cell Biology

Jer-Yen Yang graduated Saturday from The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS), departing with hard-earned expertise about a crucial cancer-suppressing protein, an impressive publication record and a blueprint for success as a scientist. And his doctorate, of course.

"I've learned a lot here from Dr. Hung about how to do science, how to stay focused and to not waste time," Yang says. "I want to cure cancer patients. This is my goal, and I'm trying to achieve it step by step."

hung-yang profile.jpg"Dr. Hung" is Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D., professor and chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology, and one of the world's leading experts on the molecular disruptions that fuel cancer.  Hung also is a multi-year winner of the graduate school's annual teaching award.  The GSBS is a joint graduate program of M. D. Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. 

Hung hired Yang as a staff research scientist and quickly noted one of the many things that he has come to admire about the young researcher. "This guy is highly committed," Hung says. "He didn't view it as just an 8-to-5 job."  In 2004, Yang's work earned him co-authorship on a paper published in the journal Cell. Hung's group demonstrated that the oncoprotein IKKbeta promotes cancer growth by inhibiting the tumor-suppressing transcription factor FOXO3a.

The scientists suspected other proteins might block FOXO3a from its regulatory role in the cell nucleus. Yang, by now a GSBS student, set up a project to examine that proposition. In early 2008, Yang was first author of a paper in Nature Cell Biology showing how two known cancer-causing proteins gang up to destroy FOXO3a.  

First, the protein kinase ERK attaches phosphate groups to FOXO3a, which forces the tumor-suppressor out of the cell nucleus. Out in the cytoplasm, the phosphorylated FOXO3a is marked for death by the oncoprotein MDM2. By attaching a string of targeting proteins called ubiquitins, MDM2 subjects FOXO3a to destruction by the ubiquitin-proteasome degradation pathway.

"So this important tumor-suppressor is targeted by three oncoproteins. If we can knock out those three, we can fully restore FOXO3a to inhibit tumor growth," Yang says.

In Hung's lab, Yang is the FOXO man. "He probably knows the literature better than I," Hung says. The two co-authored a review of the tumor suppressor that was published in February 2009 by Clinical Cancer Research.

Yang moved to the United States from Taiwan, where he earned a master's degree from the prestigious Academica Sinica. Hung efficiently sums up his student's strong points: "He works hard. He's smart, reads a lot, thinks and comes up with an idea. Then he sits down and gets it done. When you teach him something, he listens, digests and he improves."

Yang says lessons learned go well beyond the lab. Hung is great at sharing information, he says, whether it's the latest from a scientific meeting or important internal updates about M. D. Anderson that keep his team in the loop. Yang has had opportunities to explore grant applications and the review process, getting a feel for the lifeblood of scientific funding, and to hone both his presentation and writing skills.  

Hung taps an extensive collaborative network to help his researchers. "If you need a reagent or tumor samples, he'll know someone who can help and we can get it, sometimes within days," Yang says.

Such collaborations lead to a critically important lesson: Share. "Teamwork is so important," Yang says, "you can't do anything by yourself. Opening your mind to share information with others helps you gain their respect, and it helps everyone do better research." Yang's sharing earned him 11 co-authorships, along with the six papers on which he was lead author.

"Learning how to be part of a team is a critical factor in becoming a scientist and a leader," Hung says. "I expect Jer-Yen to do even better as a postdoctoral fellow, and to make significant contributions to science in the future."

If Yang has one bit of advice for new students, it's to focus. "Some students are smart, they work hard, but they try to do too many things," Yang says. "Initiate one project at a time and you'll be successful."

Young scientists from M. D. Anderson earned eleven Scholar-in-Training Awards at the American Association for Cancer Research 100th Annual Meeting 2009, the most of any institution at the session in Denver.

 About 17,000 scientists from 90 countries are attending. The highly competitive travel grants go to postdoctoral fellows and graduate students judged to have submitted meritorious abstracts for the AACR meeting.  Overall, 200 were awarded.

Three of M. D. Anderson's winners came from the lab of XifengWu in the Department of Epidemiology - two postdocs and one graduate student.

M. D. Anderson honorees are:

Ahmed A. Ahmed of Experimental Therapeutics
Ugur Akar, Breast Medical Oncology
Chandra Bartholomeusz, Breast Medical Oncology
Tina Cascone, Thoracic Head and Neck Medical Oncology
Meng Chen, Epidemiology, and a graduate student in The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Puja Gaur, Surgical Oncology.
Longfei Huo, Molecular and Cellular Oncology
Xia Pu, Epidemiology
Manish Shanker, Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery
Jingmin Shu, Leukemia
Hushan Yang, Epidemiology. 


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