Department of Biomedical Informatics
UAMS College of Medicine
Scientific Director, UAMS Genomics Facility
What is your relationship to cancer?
Growing up I was very close to my maternal grandfather, a retired New York City fireman and WWII veteran. He died from lung cancer when I was 15. He was a big person, 6’2” and 200 lbs. He was only 120 lbs. when he died.
I didn’t know how sick he was and that he was never going to get better. Every week, he seemed thinner and weaker, and I was often asking my mother why Papa was not getting better. I’ve kept his sons, also now retired New York City firefighters, informed of my lung cancer research. We all still miss Papa.
What are your research goals?
As a member of the Developmental Therapeutics Research Group, my research uses advanced molecular profiling to determine the role of the liquid biopsy in early stage cancer diagnosis. With the analysis of a simple blood test, we can find circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), which are nucleic acid biomolecules shed by a tumor into the blood and detected by Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). Some of these tests are currently commercially available and FDA approved for patients with advanced (metastatic) disease. Now researchers are working to translate their foundational work into cutting-edge care for cancer patients at all stages of disease (and tumor types) and eventually for screening assays.
I began a clinical trial in 2019 to develop an advanced liquid biopsy method for diagnosing and monitoring lung cancer. Funded by a $1.47 million grant from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), my lab tests lung tumor samples by running genetic sequencing and regrowing them using different methods. If the tumors are large enough, we test existing drugs and novel combinations of existing drugs on the tumors for the most effective treatment. This information is stored in a tumor bank so that doctors know the best treatment to use if the patient returns. We look for aggregate patterns on what treatments work best for different types of tumors.
In a related effort, I am part of an FDA-funded international collaboration whose recently published findings reveal that five commercially available assays can reliably detect circulating tumor DNA of late-stage and metastatic cancers.
Published April 12, 2021, in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the scientific study team includes researchers at the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas, and 12 participating laboratories in Europe, Australia, Asia and the United States. Nature’s behind the paper channel further explores aspects of how this research paper came to be and where subsequent research may lead.
What do you hope to contribute to cancer research and to the Cancer Institute?
As a medical oncologist, biomedical informaticist and computer engineer, I bring a unique combination of expertise that has served me well in the quest to make a simple blood test part of oncology clinical practice, along with advancing the personalized treatment of cancer.