April 21, 2000

Department of Cancer Biology formed

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Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D.

Department of Cancer Biology formed

The School of Medicine has created a new Department of Cancer Biology, the first new basic science department since the establishment of Microbiology and Immunology in 1955.

Lynn M. Matrisian, Ph.D., associate director for education in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and internationally recognized researcher in the role of proteolytic enzymes in cancer, has been named as the department's first chair.

Creation of the new department recognizes the organization and focus of the field of cancer biology as a discipline in its own right, said Dr. John Chapman, dean of the School of Medicine. "This department has all the role and status of other departments, including knowledge as our product," he said. "This includes knowledge of cancer biology shared in the form of education, knowledge of cancer biology discovered in the form of research and knowledge of cancer biology applied in the clinical arena."

Establishment of the new department was sparked by Vanderbilt Medical Center's desire to enhance the quality and quantity of its research and to increase its national visibility in research and medical education overall, said Dr. Harry Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

"Achieving this goal will involve increasing research strengths in both our clinical and basic science departments," Jacobson said. "We believe that the development of additional basic science departments, such as Cancer Biology, is the most desirable approach, rather than increasing the size of departments or changing the scope of responsibility for department chairs in order to manage and mentor ever-larger numbers of faculty."

The new department, expected to grow over time to about 20 faculty, will begin with a core group of about six faculty from the current department of Cell Biology. "However, it is important to note that the department of Cancer Biology will be supported by new funds made available to the School of Medicine, with no financial impact on existing departments," Jacobson said.

Dr. Harold Moses, Benjamin F. Byrd Professor of Oncology and director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, said that establishment of the new department will help Vanderbilt-Ingram capitalize on the opportunity to recruit new scientists presented by the ongoing "Imagine A World Without Cancer Campaign." The $100 million fund-raising campaign was launched last year with a gift from the Ingram Charitable Fund. It is designed to support Vanderbilt-Ingram's focus on some of the most promising areas of cancer research and to ensure its place among the nation's top cancer centers.

Many of these new recruits – though certainly not all – will be researchers in the area of cell biology/cancer biology, said Moses, who served as chair of Cell Biology from 1985-98. However, as departments grow in size, the ability of chairs to lead and mentor faculty can be seriously diminished, he said. A new department will allow growth in the cancer biology arena, without jeopardizing the existing strengths of the Cell Biology Department.

"This new department is an almost critical development for the future of the Cancer Centers, and I am very pleased that the School of Medicine, Dean Chapman, the Vice Chancellor, and the executive faculty were willing to support this," Moses said.

Matrisian has served as interim chair of Cell Biology since Moses left the position to devote his full time and attention to directing the Cancer Center and conducting his own research.

"When we began to look at who in the country would be the best person to lead this new department, clearly Lynn was the best choice for the job," said Moses, who recruited Matrisian to Vanderbilt in 1986 and who, in turn, has become Matrisian's first recruit to the Cancer Biology faculty.

Chapman also had high praise for Matrisian as an educator and researcher, and he expressed confidence in her abilities to successfully launch the new department as its first chair.

"Dr. Matrisian brings a substantial personal program of effort and success in the field of cancer biology," Chapman said. "She is a national leader in this area, and importantly, she provides a Vanderbilt perspective reflective of her 15 years in the department of Cell Biology."

The overarching theme to the research conducted in the Cancer Biology Department will be the communication pathways between cells and their environment, Matrisian said. "The cues that the cells take from the environment are often disrupted in cancer, so it provides an excellent place to target therapy and prevention strategies," Matrisian said. "The goal is to re-establish the normal environment – one way to think of it is to make the cells behave properly through peer pressure from their surroundings."

Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and Vanderbilt-Ingram's associate director for basic research, said that having a cadre of researchers in one department with a singular focus on cancer will ultimately benefit the fight against the disease. However, he noted that researchers in other basic scientists have and will continue to play a key role in the Cancer Center's body of research as well.

"Clearly, this new department offers a place to which we can recruit new cancer center faculty, and an influx of additional people is essential to achieving our goal of being one of the top cancer centers in the country," Marnett said. "Since the Cancer Center was formed in 1993, we have done a good job of recruiting basic scientists. We have a successful record of recruiting young and middle-level investigators and making sure they flourish. I expect that to continue, in the new Cancer Biology Department and all the other basic science departments as well."

Cancer Biology faculty will be invited to become members of the Cancer Center but Matrisian noted that the department will be their "academic home." "Cancer Biology is not synonymous with the Cancer Center," Matrisian said. "It is a department within the School of Medicine with an educational mission to the School of Medicine and to the Graduate School."

Cancer Biology will assume responsibility for teaching the core medical school course in histology/cell and tissue biology, now taught by Cell Biology faculty, and plans are under way to develop a Ph.D. program in Cancer Biology. "We'll do that with input from faculty and students," Matrisian said, adding that current students will be given an option of receiving their degree in either Cell or Cancer Biology. "We're working toward as seamless a transition as possible."

The new department will have office and laboratory space in the Frances Williams Preston Building (MRBII), which is undergoing an expansion to provide new space and a more clearly identifiable focal point for Vanderbilt-Ingram activities. The location of Cancer Biology faculty near other cancer researchers as well as near physicians in the clinic is designed to foster collaboration, Moses said.

Matrisian received her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1982.

Before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1986, she carried out postdoctoral studies in the Laboratory of Genetics and Molecular Biology in Strasbourg, France.

She is well known for her work on the role of proteolytic enzymes in cancer and particularly cancer metastasis, and she has more than 120 scientific publications to her credit. Her research has earned the financial support of the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Army Breast Cancer Research Program and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Matrisian plays an active role in the American Association for Cancer Research, including serving a four-year elected term on the AACR Board of Directors. She has served on the Pathology B Study Section of the National Institutes of Health and as a member of the parent committee that reviews NCI-designated cancer centers.