Dr. Todd Golub Pioneers Work in Fingerprinting Cancer
2002 - Imagine taking the guesswork out of treating cancer. Imagine a time when an oncologist can run a DNA profile on a patient’s tumor and then consult a database to find exactly the right treatment for that particular patient.
Dr. Todd Golub is leading a team of researchers whose aim is to make reality of such a scenario—to personalize cancer treatment by using genetic data to map each type of cancer, from cancers of the blood and marrow to solid tumors. By “fingerprinting” cancers, these researchers hope to identify new treatments for cancer patients.
With his BWF award, Dr. Golub began his pioneering work on the genetics of a particular type of childhood leukemia. Under the microscope, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ACL) looks the same in every patient. But by using DNA chips (tiny chips of silicon embedded with samples of genetic material) to analyze the genetics of the leukemia, Dr. Golub discovered two distinct subsets of ACL and could predict which patients with which subset would respond to treatment.
Using DNA chips, Dr. Todd Golub analyzes the genetic characteristics of certain cancers, which one day may lead to more targeted, and successful, treatment of many types of cancer.“This is an extraordinary period in the history of biomedical research,” Dr. Golub says. “We have the genome sequence for the first time. Fifty years from now it will be old hat, but 10 years ago, you couldn’t have imagined it.
“What I primarily think of myself as doing is trying to bring together different scientific disciplines to focus on problems,” he adds. “Bringing together medical, biological, and computer backgrounds is what we need to do.”
From leukemia, Dr. Golub moved on to test DNA profiling in a solid tumor, working with young patients suffering from brain tumors identified as medulloblastomas. Once again, Dr. Golub and his team were able to predict treatment outcomes.
Dr. Golub says that using DNA chips for analyzing the genetic basis of cancer has turned out to be a powerful approach. “It’s an approach that allows us to classify cancers based not on their appearance under the microscope but on their genetic signals,” he explains. “We’ve done this in preliminary studies in prostate cancer and lung cancer” [as well as in leukemia and brain tumors].
Getting into his particular area of cancer research, Dr. Golub says, was a gradual process. “I’d been drawn to the midpoint between medicine and biology for a long time and decided early on that I wanted to be at the interface between basic biology and clinical applications,” he explains. “You really can’t ask for anything more interesting; you’re basically trying to solve crossword puzzles for living and for something that’s going to make a difference for patients.”
About the intensity of his work, Dr. Golub says, “I have to learn to be more efficient with my time at work, and I’m trying to be more disciplined about not working all the time, especially since I have a wife and a two-year-old daughter. To unwind, I need nothing more than to see how spectacular the development of an infant into a toddler can be. It’s genetics and biology right in front of you.”
Earlier in 2002, Dr. Golub received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute award to continue his groundbreaking research in the genetics of cancer. “The Howard Hughes funding will allow us to take our preliminary work to the next level,” he says. According to Dr. Golub, that means bringing the genetic approaches he and his team have pioneered from the research lab to the clinic. Secondly, Dr. Golub says, “We need to think not only about making observations about the genetic patterns in cancer but also about manipulating those patterns and identifying new therapeutic strategies for specific types of cancer.”
Dr. Golub is director of the Cancer Genomics program at the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research, as well as the Charles A. Dana Investigator in Human Cancer Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
He conducts his research on both the Whitehead and Dana Farber campuses. The dual nature of his research affiliation, he says, “reflects the emerging multi-disciplinary nature of genomics research, which requires activity both on the traditional biomedical side and the technology computation side and creates a powerful synergy between the two.”