October 9, 2019

Watkins’ niece Garraway discusses research, family ties

UCLA’s Isla Garraway, MD, PhD, delivered Tuesday’s Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture.

André Churchwell, MD, Chief Diversity Officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, welcomed those gathered at the 18th Annual Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture on Tuesday and bestowed awards to faculty and students for their diversity and inclusion efforts.

Isla Garraway, MD, PhD, and André Churchwell, MD, pose for a photo at Tuesday’s Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture.
Isla Garraway, MD, PhD, and André Churchwell, MD, pose for a photo at Tuesday’s Levi Watkins Jr., MD Lecture. (photo by Joe Howell)

Seth Karp, MD, professor and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences, received the faculty award; Temini Ajayi, MD, and Maxwell James, MD, received the house staff awards; and Leah Chisholm and Tola Omokehinde received the student awards.

Churchwell then introduced keynote speaker and Watkins’ niece, Isla Garraway, MD, PhD, a surgeon-scientist and principal Investigator of a UCLA basic/translational science laboratory that is focused on characterizing human prostate stem and tumor-initiating cells, as well as biological and microenvironmental interactions that influence metastatic progression. She spoke on “The Role of the Surgical Scientist as Champion of Translational Research.”

Garraway comes from an academically high-achieving family and she had planned to pursue a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon like her uncle, Levi Watkins Jr., MD, the first African-American student to graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in 1970. However, when she was a researcher working toward her doctorate degree in a lab at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, her father, Michael Garraway, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994 at age 61.

“That diagnosis really changed the trajectory of our lives. When we got that cancer diagnosis, it quickly became clear we had to change what we were going to do. We had to use our brain power toward fighting prostate cancer,” Garraway said.

For Garraway and her brother, Levi, then a doctoral candidate working in a lab at Harvard, the disease became top priority. Her brother went into medical oncology and she became a urologist to study, diagnose and treat prostate cancer. Their sister, Doris Garraway, PhD, who devoted a year to help care for their father, is now chair of the Department of French and Italian at Northwestern University. Prostate cancer took their father’s life in 1999.

Garraway shared with the audience details of her work to identify markers and mechanisms of prostate cancer to aid in staging and treating the disease, specifically the role that cytokeratin 13 (KRT13), an intermediate filament protein, plays in prostate cancer bone, brain, and soft tissue metastases, and chromosomal instability, a hallmark of prostate cancer.

About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer. About 1 in 41 men will die of prostate cancer.

“It is a major public health issue. It’s a very complex disease because there are some prostate cancers that don’t need a lot of treatment and others that are really aggressive,” Garraway said.