The Office of Cancer Genomics is proud to regularly support internship programs including The Health Communications Internship Program (HCIP). This past July the OCG welcomed a new HCIP intern to a one-year appointment. Gene Gillespie earned his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2011 and is interested in pursuing a career in science and medical writing. He presents a few personal and scientific thoughts on cancer in this month’s eNews perspective.
“All normal cells are alike; every cancer cell is cancerous in its own way,” said my first year rotation mentor in graduate school. The quote recalls the opening phrase of Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina, which begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My rotation mentor was particularly interested in the unhappy family of a cancer called glioblastoma, the most malignant human brain tumor. Though this was my first experience with cancer research, cancer and I first met in Pune, a large Indian metropolis about 100 miles southeast of Mumbai.
The wedding was three weeks away and we were all scrambling to get our visas and our anti-malarial drugs. Everything indicated it would be a grand affair, replete with delectable Indian delicacies and resplendent ceremonies extending over the course of several days. My sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law were navigating the dizzying array of preparations that are part and parcel of a wedding. It was then that my brother-in-law noticed a pain in his abdomen and decided to have it checked out by a doctor before making the trip. The eventual diagnosis was desmoplastic small round cell tumor, an extremely rare sarcoma with overall survival rates less than 20%.
The next six years were marked by partial tumor regressions and then eventual advancement when the tumor developed resistance to the chemo drugs. The strange language of cancer started to be spoken within our family, as it has been in so many others. These were words like debulking and multimodal therapy, such seemingly benign terms obscuring a haunting reality. My brother-in-law died in 2009, but I will never forget him and what he taught me about persisting in the face of impossible odds. I feel lucky to have been granted some more time with him. He and my sister are probably the two kindest people I have ever met, but as I learned, cancer does not discriminate.
At this point, I decided that I would study cancer after I finished my graduate degree in microbiology. As I was searching the internet for options, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Health Communications Internship program of the National Cancer Institute. The program was perfect for me in that it combined my interests in cancer research and scientific writing. After declining an internship in 2010 to finish earning my Ph.D., I was accepted as an intern in the Office of Cancer Genomics (OCG) in July 2012. Thus far, the internship has been a crash course in both cancer genomics and scientific communications. I am excited to be working with a diverse team of talented individuals in developing content for both the newsletter and the OCG website. My particular focus will be the Cancer Target Discovery and Development (CTD²) program. CTD² aims to translate genomic characterization, which has been supported largely by The Cancer Genome Atlas and OCG's TARGET and CGAP/CGCI, into functional understanding of aberrant cancer pathways and clinically relevant therapeutics.
Though my graduate work in the laboratory of Ken Bradley at UCLA was on host-bacterial pathogen interactions, I am finding that my experience in high-throughput small-molecule and siRNA screening dovetails perfectly with the translational aspect of OCG embodied by the CTD² program. My goal then was to find novel targets and therapies for anthrax. In some ways, it was TD² without the C.
My belief is that providing efficient and compelling communication will advance the mission of curing cancers. I look forward to sharing with you the progress and challenges of the cancer community, in the hope that this information will aid this noble cause.