December 16, 2005

Liebler named to take Ayers Institute’s reins

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Daniel Liebler, Ph.D., will lead the newly formed Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis.
photo by Dana Johnson

Liebler named to take Ayers Institute’s reins

Daniel Liebler, Ph.D., director of Vanderbilt's Proteomics Laboratory, has been tapped to head the new Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis.

“I'm really thrilled to do this. I think it's a great opportunity and a really big challenge, but we've got the support and colleagues here to succeed,” said Liebler, a leader in the field of analyzing proteins that could play key roles in the detection and treatment of cancer. “The Ayers Institute builds upon our collective expertise in proteomics and cancer at Vanderbilt.”

The Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis was established this summer at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center with a $10 million gift over five years from the West Tennessee businessman.

“Dr. Liebler's tremendous efforts in the study of proteins make him the ideal candidate for this position,” said Ayers, chairman of FirstBank. “Under his leadership, I'm confident that new techniques will be developed to support the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center's mission of finding and fighting cancers, or even, one day, preventing cancer entirely.”

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of Vanderbilt-Ingram and an internationally recognized researcher who studies the molecular causes of colorectal cancer, praised Liebler's work in proteomics.

“I am really excited that Dan has agreed to serve as director of the Ayers Institute. Based on the goals of the Institute, Dan is uniquely talented to be at the helm. He is one of the few people in the world who is truly qualified to lead these efforts. I look forward to working with him in the future and to great progress in this area,” said DuBois.

The Institute is shaping up to be a major piece of the strategic plan for the research enterprise at VUMC and will be a “virtual institute” that relies on collaborations between Vanderbilt-Ingram and numerous VUMC departments, as well as experts outside of Vanderbilt. But its physical home will be in the Learned Lab in Medical Research Building III.

“As Institute Director, it is Dan's responsibility to coordinate the activities of all faculty and staff, in our many Centers and Departments, toward success in developing a serum diagnostic test for early colon cancer,” said Jeffrey Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “At the same time, his efforts will play a major role in moving Vanderbilt into a position of national leadership in tissue proteomics and early cancer detection. I believe Dan's leadership of this “big science” initiative will make a difference in the health of individuals in Tennessee and beyond.”

Though the work of the Ayers Institute will cover a wide range of cancers and other diseases down the road, Liebler and his team will initially focus on identifying molecular markers for colorectal cancer. The incidence and mortality rates associated with colorectal cancer are higher among African-Americans, and Liebler will draw upon Vanderbilt-Ingram's expertise in addressing disparities in colon and other cancers through the Southern Community Cohort Study, the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance and other programs.

Liebler's vision as director includes identifying markers of tumors that can be used as new diagnostic tests.

“Very little work is being done to study tumor proteomes; most people are looking at blood proteomics. Identification of tumor-specific markers begins with tumors and pre-cancers themselves. I think we're the best positioned place to do this,” he said.

“We'd like to be able to identify collections of proteins that are characteristic of early disease and develop methods to detect these in the blood. That would ultimately lead to a blood test for colon cancer,” Liebler said.

Though Liebler is optimistic that blood diagnostics are on the horizon for cancer patients, he cautions that much work must come first. “I think in the next five years we will be able to identify proteins that are indicative of cancer, and we will be able to detect many of these markers in the blood as indicators of cancers and pre-cancers,” said Liebler. He admits it's a massive undertaking and will be a big challenge.

“You're talking about a tiny amount of tumor tissue producing proteins that go into the blood. It's pretty analogous to taking a can of Coke and dumping it into the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and then later detecting molecules from the Coke in New Orleans,” explained Liebler. “It's that one drop of blood out of the whole adult human being,” he added.

However, Liebler said new “shotgun” proteomics analysis methods using mass spectrometry can detect well-known cancer markers such as PSA at blood levels seen in cancer patients.

Another goal of Liebler's at the Institute is not only to improve early cancer detection, but to identify proteomics signatures to guide treatment on an individualized basis.

“This can guide us to choosing the right therapy for each person. We're developing a focus for 'personal medicine' or individualized therapy,” said Liebler. “If we identify proteomic signatures that indicate susceptibility or resistance to a drug, it may improve treatment outcomes for patients with cancer.”