• 2014 Brinker Award: Joan S. Brugge



    Guest post by Joan S. Brugge, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Cell Biology and Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Cell Biology Director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.

    I am highly honored to be the recipient of this year’s Brinker Award.  I share this honor with the extremely talented young investigators in my laboratory and my close collaborators within and outside Harvard Medical School.

    The road that I travelled to becoming a cancer biologist and Professor at Harvard Medical School was uncharted.  As an academically inclined young girl growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I was headed down a career path to become a high school teacher. I loved problem solving, and went to Northwestern University as a math major. However, when I was a sophomore in college, my sister developed cancer and I became passionately committed to understanding the causes of this horrible disease that later took her from our family.

    I switched my college major to biology and went to Baylor College of Medicine for my Ph.D. to study cancer-inducting viruses, which offered a way to dissect cancer-causing mechanisms.  Dr. Janet Butel was a superb career model and mentor for me.  She was extremely bright, devoted to her students and a mother of two children. Having gone to an all-girls high school, I never questioned whether women could be leaders.

    As a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Ray Erikson at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, I set out on a project to identify the protein encoded by the Src gene of Rous Sarcoma Virus.  At that time (1975), it was known that a small region of the viral genome was required for tumor formation, but there was no means to identify the protein product of this gene in order to understand its function.  After almost two years of trying many different approaches, we found the protein and this launched a 15 year investigative journey at the State University of New York at Stonybrook and University of Pennsylvania to identify the function of this protein in normal tissues and discover how its alterations could convert it into a potent cancer-inducing agent.

    Our studies, and others in the field, revealed that Src is a key cellular integrator, activated by many cellular receptors to change the behavior of cells. These findings revealed an important aspect of the complexity of targeting cellular genes that drive cancer – that is, blocking the function of these genes in tumors can suppress many processes essential to normal human cells.

    In 1992, I took a break from academics to co-found a biotechnology company (ARIAD) to develop drugs that target genes like Src that control signal processing events involved in cancer and other diseases. This was an enormously exciting and transformative opportunity for me; not only did I learn a great deal from starting such a company from scratch, but I also saw how findings from the laboratory could be translated into therapies for patients. After five years at ARIAD, I was recruited to a Professorship in the Cell Biology Department at Harvard Medical School where I built a new lab focused on cancer research, utilizing advances in three dimensional culture systems to model cancer more effectively. Seven years later, I was asked to add on an administrative job to our lab research in order to serve as Chair of the Department. After 10 years in this position, I recently resigned in order to launch a new Ludwig Center at Harvard to bring together scientists and clinicians to garner new insights and breakthroughs in overcoming cancer therapy resistance.

    On the personal side, I married Bill Brugge, who was a medical student at Baylor, when I was in graduate school and we had a child, Shawn, when I was a postdoc. Part of my success can be attributed to their strong support of my research passion. While it is always challenging to juggle the many responsibilities of a research and teaching career, I learned how to balance these jobs with time for family and recreation (especially tennis and scuba diving!) – the key being to set some limits on the number and diversity of outside activities.

    While directing research is a demanding and stressful job for many reasons, the satisfaction that comes from making new discoveries, mentoring the next generation of scientists and contributing information with the potential to impact human disease is enormous.

    Learn more about our other 2014 Brinker Awardee, Dr. Mitch Dowsett – Komen Brinker Award winner for Scientific Distinction in Clinical Research.

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