Prostate cancer researcher finds rewards in mentoring
Daniel Frigo, Ph.D., developed a passion for science at a young age, inspired by his mechanical engineer dad and physician mom.
“I was always fascinated by looking at my mom’s medical journals and hearing about her experience in the hospital,” Frigo says. His education and early career path has taken him from Chicago to Indiana, Louisiana and the Carolinas. But Frigo says Houston is home.
Now, as the principal investigator of the Frigo Lab at MD Anderson, he mentors a team of researchers focused on prostate cancer metabolism.
“You couldn’t ask for a better place to do biomedical research than MD Anderson,” he says.
Finding a personal connection to prostate cancer research
As a postdoctoral fellow, Frigo researched endometrial cancer, but he had a hard time finding a personal connection with the disease.
But he found prostate cancer offers him similar challenges with a disease he can relate to. “Prostate cancer has all the hallmarks of a hormone-driven disease, but there were clear gaps in our understanding of how this type of cancer could become aggressive,” Frigo says. “And, because it’s so prevalent, I felt like I could really take ownership with this disease type.”
He and his team are trying to get to the root of how prostate cancer develops and grows over time.
Frigo compares cancer growth to building a house. “You have to possess the energy to build the house, and you need more supplies all the time,” he says. “So, we’re trying to figure out how tumors get the energy and supplies they need to grow.”
Based on this knowledge, they’re working to discover therapeutic targets that could stop or slow that growth in prostate tumors. As the lab grows and more research gets underway, Frigo foresees a future benefit beyond prostate cancer. “If we can better understand these metabolic changes, we could potentially apply our findings to other cancer types,” he says.
Mentoring future cancer researchers
Frigo always imagined running his own company. So, when he had the opportunity to open his own lab at MD Anderson, it was an easy decision. “Being a principal investigator in my lab gives me the best of both worlds,” he says.
Building his lab allows him to oversee the research and have a team behind him that takes care of the other aspects of running a group. His main goal is to create an environment for lab members that doesn’t feel like a job. “I want our team to be excited and lead their own experiments,” Frigo says. “I never want them to feel like they’re coming to work.”
Frigo seeks to lead by example and give his lab members the tools they need to succeed. He knows working in his lab is just the start for some of them. He hopes to see each member of his team making what he calls the “big discoveries” someday.
“It’s rewarding to see mentorship pay off in the careers of my lab members,” he says.
Spending time outdoors in Houston
A former athlete, Frigo once considered becoming a professional high jumper. For now, he spends time in between grant writing and research playing beach volleyball. He also enjoys biking along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou.
“Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s nice to be able to take advantage of Houston’s warm weather and get outside to enjoy some exercise,” he says.
Keeping cancer patients top of mind
Working in research, Frigo says, means you don’t always get to see something that you're working on move directly into the clinic. But at MD Anderson, he and his lab members get to hear about progress they’ve helped make from the clinical side.
That collaboration between lab and clinic are what set MD Anderson apart, he says, and what keeps him excited for the future. “It’s exciting to hear how we’re helping patients and to have a role in their treatment,” says Frigo, who finds fulfillment in knowing his work will have an impact on them in the long run.
“When you come to a place like MD Anderson you’ve got our whole team behind you,” he says.