Voices of Impact – Dr. Dan Welch
“My hope is that, working together, we get to a place where, instead of requiring total elimination of all cancer cells for a cure, metastatic cancer could become a chronic, controllable disease.”
“Komen is not shying away from this difficult subject, continuing to ask people to identify ways to more effectively treat those metastases.”
When I was young I thought I wanted to be a physician. As one of my pre-med requirements at UC Irvine, I worked in Garth Nicolson’s lab on cancer and metastasis. What I found out was that I really enjoyed doing research. When an opportunity came up to work with Garth as a grad student at MD Anderson in Houston, I jumped at it, and was the first graduate student in the Department of Tumor Biology.
It was at Penn State, at their new Cancer Institute, that I really began to focus on metastasis. This was due in part to my friend Buddy Weissman, whom I met at UC Irvine. He had this cool technique of moving chromosomes into other cells, which is how he discovered several tumor suppressors – information that he let me take with me. While at Penn State, I read the literature showing that as melanoma cells switched from benign to malignant, a particular piece of chromosome 6 vanished about 80 percent of the time. My theory was that replacing this missing part would reduce the cells’ malignancy – sort of like repairing a runaway vehicle’s faulty brakes. Turned out that I was right. I called the first metastasis suppressor KiSS1, to remind people that it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania. There are now 30 of these metastasis suppressors; I’m very proud that six of them were discovered by my research group.
Two years ago I was fortunate to join the leadership at the University of Kansas (KU) Cancer Center. Research is now advanced to the point that we are able to get information from an individual’s cancer to categorize it better so we can personalize treatment regimens. That’s why I’m very interested in mitochondria research – in addition to being the “powerhouses” that supply cells with their energy, our recent laboratory tests suggest that the genetic makeup of the mitochondria may predict the susceptibility of getting metastatic disease.
Another area I see as an exciting prospect – and I admit that it’s an uphill battle – is that we might be able to render cancer a chronic disease that people live with without dying. KiSS1 was one of the first molecules that made that vision a possibility. Metastatic cancer cells move around the body, often beginning as clusters – like teenagers at the mall – but eventually single cells seed other organs. But when KISS1 is present, those seeded cancer cells don’t grow. If we could just keep them in that state of suspended animation forever…
I first became acquainted with Komen at the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) scientist/survivor program, when I got to interact with a lot of great people from a lot of different advocacy programs. I became most intimately involved when I was at University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I worked with AIS member Bev Laird in the early 2000s. She was the president/treasurer at the North Alabama Affiliate of Komen and she really worked very hard to try and engage researchers and students at UAB. We were a great team.
When I told Bev I was moving to Kansas City, she put me in touch with Cheryl Jernigan, another AIS member, at the Greater Kansas City Affiliate. I’ve never met a single Komen volunteer who wasn’t simply amazing. These are ladies who’ve fought, battled and won against breast cancer. The advocates were also very influential in my becoming a Komen Scholar.
Being a Komen Scholar and working with the Advocates in Science is a constant reminder that cancer and breast cancer affect real people. One of the first things I did at Hershey was to start a graduate course to study cancer. I began asking physicians to come in and tell students what they did as a doctor in real life because, what I learned after about a year or so, was that most grad students studied cancer only in a petri dish. But seeing someone who has been in the wards and has been with patients who are really suffering keeps it real and fuels their passion for this important work.
Also – these two Komen groups have helped me maintain metastasis as my main focus. The latest National Institute of Health numbers said that only eight percent of grants even mention the word metastasis. Less than approximately five percent of funding from all research organizations goes to metastasis. When you consider that 90 percent of morbidity/mortality is from metastatic disease … the disconnect is staggering. Komen’s RFA for the last few grant cycles has had a significant metastasis component, for which Komen should be very proud. Komen is not shying away from this difficult subject, continuing to ask people to identify ways to more effectively prevent and treat those metastases.
If I can stress one thing, it’s that professional interactions really play a role – nobody does anything by themselves. I’ve been lucky in my career to be associated with some great collaborators, people who were smarter than me and who work really hard. My hope is that, working together, we get to a place where, instead of requiring total elimination of all cancer cells for a cure, metastatic cancer could become a chronic, controllable disease.
About the author
Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Komen is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure®, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.