Future cancer research specialists trained here

Nadia Hassounah, a second year CBIO student
Nadia Hassounah, a second year CBIO student

For 30 years, the Arizona Cancer Center has had a hand in training the next generation of cutting-edge cancer researchers through the University of Arizona’s Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.

The need for a program that specializes in cancer biology is obvious, said Jesse D. Martinez, PhD, the Arizona Cancer Center’s chief scientific officer and director of the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program, known as CBIO.

“The thing about cancer biology – probably more so than almost any other discipline – is that the study and the treatment of cancer involves a lot of disciplines, so it would be difficult to have a cancer biology program that didn’t have access to all those different disciplines,” said Dr. Martinez, who is also a UA professor of cell biology and anatomy and radiation oncology.

Faculty from five UA colleges and 15 departments are involved in the program. From making the basic laboratory discoveries that improve the understanding of how tumors develop and metastasize, to creating better diagnostics and less toxic drugs to treat patients, there are dozens of specialties that contribute to the discipline of cancer biology.

“All of these people work together, none work in isolation and all are important for conducting cancer research,” Dr. Martinez said. “Getting that pipeline going from the most basic kind of discovery at the level of molecules and cells and taking it all the way to the clinic where you treat a patient and see regression of a tumor, it takes a lot of people.”

While many universities offer classes and graduate programs that may touch upon cancer, the UA Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program is one of the few that focuses exclusively on cancer across all the related disciplines of science.

Damian J. Junk, PhD, a 2008 CBIO graduate who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Case Western Reserve University, chose the program not only because of its cancer-specific focus, but also because of the Arizona Cancer Center’s mission: to prevent and cure cancer.

“It truly was a pioneering program,” he said. “Also, it was the only program that seemed to dare talk about a cure for cancer.

Nowhere else that I visited dared to be so bold as to speak of a cure. I felt that it was the right place for me, because I trained as a cancer biologist not to just get a good job, but to do my very best to end the suffering induced by cancer.”

Many other applicants share this sentiment. As a result, the CBIO program is in high demand and acceptance is very competitive, said Program Coordinator Anne Cione.

“We get 60 to 80 applicants a year and we only accept three to four,” she said. “Our students are really focused. They know what they’re doing, and they want to get out there and do it. Every student has a personal reason why they want to cure cancer.”

In August, a new group of students began their CBIO journey, bringing the program total to 22 graduate students. The class is kept small to ensure only the most dedicated and driven candidates are admitted and that each receives personalized instruction and mentoring.

“It’s a really good learning environment,” said Nadia Hassounah, a second year CBIO student. “I think it’s a great program.”

The first year, students take a wide range of cancer-focused classes that hone their knowledge of the disease. They then choose areas of special concentration such as biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, pharmacology or microbiology.

“I enjoyed taking the core set of CBIO courses taught by experienced professors, and also enjoyed the opportunity to take a variety of courses cross-listed in other departments for my minor and electives to round out my graduate coursework,” said Sarah T. Wilkinson, PhD, a 2008 CBIO graduate who is now a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Lisa Rimsza, MD, a Cancer Center member and UA pathology professor.

The in-depth cancer study ensures that students have the necessary background to enable them to conduct original research at the Arizona Cancer Center and in other laboratories around campus. At the end of their first year, students pick an advisor’s laboratory in which to work and a related dissertation topic to pursue.

“The graduate students are an important part of the research process,” Dr. Martinez said. “Not only do they get an education, but they are right in the trenches of the process that leads to new cancer discoveries.” (Read more at Student discovery drives cancer innovation.)

On average, students complete the program and receive their PhDs in four and a half years. Once they’re finished, they are ready for cancer research, said David J. Samuelson, PhD, a 2001 graduate of the program who is now an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“The Arizona Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program provides comprehensive training to early career scientists,” he said. “This training positions them to further pursue an independent career in an academic, government or industrial research setting.”

Since it began in 1988, 60 scientists have completed the CBIO program. Several have stayed at the Arizona Cancer Center to complete post-doctorates and a few, such as 2002 graduate Nhan Tran, PhD, have become CBIO faculty members.

“Our students get good training and they go good places,” Dr. Martinez said. “About 50 percent go into industry and 50 percent go into academia. Our students almost exclusively go on to do cancer-related research or work in a field that has an impact on cancer research.”

Funding the future

The Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program has anywhere from 20 to 35 students enrolled in a given year. Class size is kept small to ensure students receive personalized mentoring, but it’s also limited by funding.

“Funding is definitely a big influence on the program,” said Dr. Martinez. “Students can only go into laboratories of faculty that have funding for them. Sometimes it’s a struggle for us to find funding, but we’ve never let a student lapse due to lack of funding.”

Since 1978, the program has received continuous funding from the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Biology T32 Training Grant, which provides stipends for pre-and postdoctoral trainees. Students are also supported through funds provided by their major professors and generous donors, such as Therese Berg.

For more information about funding student research at the Arizona Cancer Center, please contact the Development Office at development@azcc.arizona.edu or (520) 626-5279.