Researcher Q&A: Dr. Neil Ganem

In an effort to share more about the work being done in the field of melanoma research, we are beginning a new feature on our blog to showcase some of our funded investigators. Today we’re talking with Neil Ganem, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and recipient of the Jackie King-MRA Young Investigator Award.

Neil Ganem. Photo courtesy of Boston University School of Medicine.

Neil Ganem. Photo courtesy of Boston University School of Medicine.

How did you get interested in melanoma and your field of research?

My lab studies the causes and consequences of a phenomenon known as chromosome instability, which is a hallmark of solid tumors, including melanoma. Normal human cells maintain all of their genetic information on 23 pairs of chromosomes. By contrast, a common feature of human cancer cells is that they possess an abnormal number of chromosomes, a state known as aneuploidy. Though already abnormal, many aneuploid cancer cells continue to shuffle their chromosome content, often gaining and losing chromosomes with each cell division. This trait of cancer cells is termed chromosome instability (CIN).

CIN is known to facilitate tumor initiation, progression, the development of chemo-resistance, and relapse. Consequently, patients with CIN tumors have a poor clinical prognosis. One major focus of my research program is to uncover the cellular defects that generate chromosome instability in human cancer cells. Several years ago a colleagues of mine, Craig Ceol, generated a transgenic zebrafish model to expresses oncogenic BRAF specifically in melanocytes. Interestingly, Craig and I found that oncogenic BRAF, which is one of the most common causes of melanoma, acted as a potent driver of chromosome instability. My lab is now attempting to define the mechanisms through which oncogenic BRAF promotes abnormal chromosome segregation and CIN. To do this, we are using highly sophisticated microscopic techniques to visualize individual chromosomes as they separate during cell division.

How can your research make a difference to melanoma patients? 

A major focus of my group is to identify whether chromosome instability generated by oncogenic BRAF represents a point-of-weakness that can be therapeutically exploited. My lab has recently developed an innovative screening approach to comprehensively identify the proteins and molecular pathways required for chromosomally unstable cancer cells to survive and proliferate.

Ultimately, our long-term scientific goal is to develop new strategies to specifically inhibit the growth of abnormal, chromosomally unstable melanoma cells while sparing the normal cells from which they originated. We hope that by targeting chromosome stability, rather than a specific oncogene, we may ultimately develop new and innovative treatments for melanoma patients.

How has MRA funding helped your work?

The Jackie King Young Investigator Award from the MRA is supporting the salary of Sanghee Lim, an M.D./Ph.D. student in my laboratory. Sanghee is a fantastic student who has already finished his first two years of medical school. He will now spend the next four years earning his Ph.D. in my lab before completing his final two years of medical training. Sanghee is interested in pursuing a career in oncology/dermatology. This is one of the long-reaching effects of the support from the MRA: Awards provide the financial support to engage young M.D./Ph.D. candidates in projects directly relevant to melanoma, which may ultimately influence those students to make melanoma research their career ambition.

What do you do when you’re not seeing patients or conducting research?

As the father of three young boys, I spend most of my free time doing dad stuff! I spend a lot of time at playgrounds, playing sports and games, and building Legos. When I have time to myself, I really enjoy yard work and doing projects around the house. I used to enjoy playing hockey, but it’s been so long since I last played that I guess I should consider myself retired at this point.

Learn more about Dr. Ganem and all the MRA Young Investigators.

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