Voices of Impact – Dr. Gordon B. Mills
Dr. Gordon B. Mills received the 2013 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science for his significant contributions to breast cancer research, which have been essential to advancing our understanding of the key processes that drive breast cancer’s initiation, progression and response to therapy. Dr. Mills has championed a cancer systems biology approach to understand the impact of genomic aberrations on complex signaling networks at the proteomic (protein) level, with the goal of individualizing cancer diagnosis and treatment. The award was presented on December 11 during the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
“In 2007, Komen awarded me a grant that facilitated the development of a new tool to study proteins and their functions within breast cancers.”
“All scientists young and old must remember that we are dependent on the intellectual input of colleagues and trainees. It is not the success of the individual that is important but rather that of the research team.”
Like many of the previous winners of this award, I too came to breast cancer research by an unexpected route. No one in my family had ever graduated from or even attended college. However, reading about the great scientists of the previous centuries encouraged me to make research a career choice.
People may not understand that “basic biology” is anything but basic! During my training in biochemistry and in medical school, I was attracted to immunology as a field of research. When I started my career, I was interested in the lack of immune response to the fetus during pregnancy, and how the clearly different genetic makeup of the fetus escapes rejection by the mother’s immune system. This biologic enigma led me to pursue a fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Along the way, my focus shifted to tumor immunology. I wanted to know how the lack of a mother’s immune response to a fetus related to a patient’s apparent lack of immune response to a tumor. Our team was among the first to describe new methods for immunotherapy that established some of the concepts that are used in cancer immune cell therapy today.
Under the mentorship of Erwin Gelfand and Sergio Grinstein (Sergio was later the best man at my wedding), I studied the pathways that govern a cell’s response to their environment. It was after this fellowship that I established my own research laboratory, which focused on T lymphocytes and ovarian cancer. After my research program was up and running, I returned to the clinic where I ran the high risk genetic counseling program at the Toronto Hospital.
Later, MD Anderson Cancer Center recruited me to head the Department of Molecular Oncology, which has become the Department of Systems Biology. I also was co-leader of the Clinical Cancer Genetics program. The similarities between the genetic and molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer resulted in my dedicating an increasing amount of my efforts to breast cancer research. My first paper dedicated to breast cancer was published in 1989 and was followed by many studies comparing and contrasting molecular mechanisms of tumor initiation and progression in breast and ovarian cancer.
My first dedicated grant on breast cancer was in 1996 and my first grant from Susan G. Komen, for which I shall ever be grateful, was in 1999. In 2007, Komen awarded me a grant that facilitated the development of a new tool to study proteins and their functions within breast cancers. Development of this technology led to collaborations with breast cancer researchers from across the USA and around the world; my collaborators hail from Canada, Brazil, Norway, England, Belgium, Holland and many other countries. This functional proteomics approach combined with my approaches to understanding and targeting the PI3K pathway in women’s cancer has led to multiple team science grants on breast cancer.
The majority of my academic efforts over the last decade have been dedicated to team science approaches. At the MD Anderson Cancer Center, I currently direct the Kleberg Center for Molecular Markers and am co-director of the Zayed Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy; both are examples of using team science approaches to deliver on the promise of personalized cancer therapy.
I will be forever indebted to my colleagues who facilitated my transition to breast cancer research, and the many others who have driven and invigorated the breast cancer program for which I am receiving the Brinker Award. This Brinker award is based on the excellence and dedication of the teams of individuals I have worked with over the years. It would not have happened without them.
As I review my career many things come to mind. I entered science at a time when you were allowed to dream and think big. Scientists were not “pigeon-holed” by their training or positions. The breast cancer community embraced an Obstetrician and Gynecologist. All scientists young and old must remember that we are dependent on the intellectual input of colleagues and trainees. It is not the success of the individual that is important but rather that of the research team.
The transition to the team science approach to biological and medical research that is so essential to helping the cancer patient isn’t without challenges, particularly for young investigators. For them, this is a more challenging time than ever to establish a career and to obtain grants. Fortunately, Susan G. Komen and many others are putting a major effort into the support of young scientists. As a Department Chair, the real excitement is in being able to recruit bright young scientists and watch them mature and grow into leaders. Supporting and mentoring should be second nature for all established scientists, not a challenge or a task. If we are going to help our patients, we will need to support and grow the next generation of exciting, dedicated and driven young scientists.
Learn more about our other 2013 Brinker Awardee, Dr. Edith Perez – Komen Brinker Award winner for Scientific Distinction in Clinical Research
Check out video interview with Dr. Gordon Mills.
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.