Alumna charts unique path to cancer research

Amanda Baker, PharmD, PhD
Amanda Baker, PharmD, PhD

By Karin Lorentzen, College of Pharmacy

Amanda Baker, PharmD, PhD, an Arizona College of Pharmacy graduate of the Class of 2000, chose to train as a pharmacist for an unusual reason: to conduct translational drug development research at the Arizona Cancer Center (AZCC).

Baker became dedicated to pursuing a career in cancer research after she observed her brother-in-law’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the early 1990s. Seeing the poor quality of life that resulted from his medical care motivated Baker to earn a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology (1997) from UA College of Pharmacy.  She then earned a PharmD from the same college in 2000.

Chose UA for pharm-tox drug development program

Baker chose the UA because of the COP’s outstanding pharmacology and toxicology drug development program. Once here, she studied under Garth Powis, then director of basic science at the Arizona Cancer Center and a world-renowned drug developer. 

“As a PhD student, I was fortunate to study with Dr. Powis, who provided me the opportunity to observe and participate in a wide spectrum of drug research including target identification and validation, drug screening, and pre-clinical testing of new small molecules,” says Baker.

“As a graduate student, I had a strong interest in learning how to take our pre-clinical results into the clinic. I saw that one pathway to do that was to go to pharmacy school because it would offer the training to speak the same language as clinicians and to specialize in the way drugs are used clinically. During my post-doctoral training, I was able to participate in designing early clinical trials of some of the drugs developed in Dr. Powis’ laboratory. I found that opportunity very rewarding, and that experience has shaped the way I have developed my own research program.”

A different path leads to success

The broad approach paid off. Baker is now a research associate professor of medicine at the UA College of Medicine, Section of Hemtology/Oncology and BIO5; director of translational research for phase 1 and 2 therapeutic trials, and director of the AZCC flow cytometry shared service.  She is also a research scientist at the Critical Path Institute, and adjunct faculty at the COP.

In January 2010, Baker was awarded a breast cancer research endowment made possible by a $5 million gift to the cancer center from the estate of Fenton L. Maynard. 

One reason Baker was awarded the endowment is that she works closely with the center’s clinical breast cancer team including Robert Livingston, MD; Alison Stopeck, MD; and Leona Downey, MD. Baker’s lab investigates biomarkers for cell death in the plasma of patients with breast cancer which may be useful in early determinations of whether patients’ tumors are responding to chemotherapy. In addition, Baker participates in similar correlative biomarker translational studies with the center’s ovarian cancer, bone marrow transplant, and GI cancer teams. 

PharmD degree promotes translational research

Baker is convinced of the value of a PharmD in a translational research setting.

“The training I received during pharmacy school in clinical pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and medical communication has been extremely valuable throughout my research career,” she says.

“The Arizona Cancer Center is really a jewel in Arizona,” she continues, “and one important reason for that is the dedication of the faculty and staff to integrating basic, clinical, and regulatory science to help support the approval of drug products that can be effectively and safely used by cancer patients.”

Baker says she is honored to have the privilege to work with a team of scientists that are all working toward the same goal of personalized medicine, which includes finding the right drug for the right patient, at the right time. Through her work, she hopes she can contribute to a better quality of life for cancer patients than her brother-in-law endured.