August 23, 2022
Cancer immunologist: MD Anderson provides culture of collaboration, not competition
BY Michael Curran, Ph.D.
I’ve always been interested in how to jump-start the immune system. My curiosity led me to train as a postdoc under Jim Allison, Ph.D., in New York. He’s an immunotherapy pioneer who received a Nobel Prize for his work in 2018.
While working in his lab, we successfully drove immune response to what we call immune “hot cancers” like melanoma and lung cancer. But most patients with other types of cancer weren’t benefiting – and many still aren’t. Pancreatic, prostate and most colorectal cancers are considered immunologically cold because immune cells don’t enter in the tumor. Therefore, the immune checkpoint inhibitors that we developed don’t work.
When I prepared to start my own lab, my goal was to be in an environment where I could study the barriers that were allowing these immune-cold cancers to shut out the immune system. I wanted to know why these cancers weren’t responding to these drugs so that we could find ways to overcome that resistance. Ultimately, I found that environment at MD Anderson.
Research and clinical collaborations built on trust
MD Anderson’s focus on cancer aligns with my research interests, but what’s appealing is the close link between the clinics and research. It’s really unique. Having studied in California and New York, I've been at institutions that move discoveries into the clinic, but no one does it as quickly and efficiently as MD Anderson. I don't want to wait five or 10 years to see my work get to patients. If something looks amazing in the lab, I want to see it in the clinic as soon as possible.
At MD Anderson, we have great clinical collaborators. I get to work with principal investigators who understand the nature of my work. Because of this, we’ve already moved a handful of discoveries from my lab into clinical trials.
New ideas take a lot of support to launch. What kind of tubes should the sample be collected in? How are we going to get our biopsy samples? Who can write this part of the protocol? At MD Anderson, we work in a framework of collaboration built on trust with our clinical colleagues. It leads to better-designed clinical trials in the future. And thanks to our clinical colleagues’ help with getting samples, we can better understand why things work or why they don’t. This partnership is extraordinarily valuable.
A culture of collaboration, not competition
We recently published a paper in the journal Science Immunology on how we can make radiation therapy a better activator of the immune system. There’s been a long-standing assumption that radiation should help activate the immune system, but that’s not always happening. Our work helps bring clarity to why that is.
Even before the paper was reviewed, I brought our findings to my MD Anderson colleagues David Hong, M.D., and James Welsh, M.D., to discuss opening a clinical trial. We have plans to open a study early next year. We don't have to spend another three months figuring out how we're going to collect samples, who's going to analyze them and how they're going to get from place to place because that infrastructure is already in place here.
There are other cancer centers that are highly ranked and doing great research, but those environments often have a competitive culture. It’s not about working together; it’s about beating the other guy to the punch. Here, when you find a colleague with a similar interest, the instinct is to work together. We combine forces. I’ve had some great experiences with 50/50-type projects that would’ve been hard to accomplish alone.
MD Anderson’s collaborative culture has been invaluable to my work. Many of us have personal experiences that motivate us. It creates a team mentality, and even more so, an unselfish atmosphere. My personal research accomplishments are less important than achieving our overall team goal of Making Cancer History®.
MD Anderson is a catalyst for early careers
Collaboration is the culture with our trainees, too. I’m proud to say I have 10 graduate students, four postdoctoral trainees and couple of medical fellows working in my lab right now. It makes for a fun workplace.
MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences attracts high-performing graduate students. But unlike other top-notch schools that I’ve been at, you feel a sense of community here. I've been impressed with the peer-to-peer learning that goes much further than the defined curriculum. When a grad student has a qualifying exam or a thesis defense, they run it over half a dozen times with other people in the program before we even ever see it.
Our postdocs benefit from coming here, too, because they get more attention from mentors, and they’re getting access to more resources. Here, they’re able to tap into that direct link to clinical samples, which is rare. So, when they’re successful, their work impacts patients much sooner.
Mentorship comes full circle
Shortly after I joined MD Anderson, my old colleague Jim Allison moved his lab here. He is also director of the James P. Allison Institute at MD Anderson. Jim is from Texas, so it was a homecoming for him, and I’m happy to call it home now, too.
In Houston, there's always something new and fun to do. We have amazing restaurants and all kinds of sports to cheer on. We also have great concerts and theater.
It has been great for my family, too. Within an hour's drive, I can take my kids to the beach, the zoo, Space Center Houston and a wide range of museums. Coming from Manhattan, it’s nice to have these cultural offerings so accessible.
The city is growing, so the culture is evolving. I’m excited to be part of Houston’s future – and MD Anderson’s.
Learn about research careers at MD Anderson.
MD Anderson’s collaborative culture has been invaluable to my work.
Michael Curran, Ph.D.