The Power and Promise of Research

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The best way Bert O’Malley, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the Baylor College of Medicine, knows how to describe a career in research is by comparing it to a detective’s work. “You collect clues and make a deduction, you collect more clues and make a deduction. The perpetrator is Mother Nature,” he during his keynote address at GW’s 16th annual Research Day, March 23.

The event, hosted by The George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences (GWSMHS) and the Office of the Vice President for Research, celebrated the broad spectrum of research conducted by GW students, faculty, and staff through speeches, panels, poster displays, oral presentations, and awards.

“This event is important because it showcases the wide breadth of research taking place within the three schools of the Medical Center,” said Vincent Chiappinelli, Ph.D, interim associate vice provost for Health Affairs and associate dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) during his opening remarks. “Research Day offers students, residents, post-doctoral fellows, faculty, and staff the opportunity to display the results of a powerful and intellectual curiosity.”

The theme of this year’s Research Day was “Cancer Research: Innovation, Translation, Application,” chosen to highlight recent strides made in cancer research and to promote multi-disciplinary collaboration in order to bridge the gaps between research and practice. At GWSMHS, said Dr. Chiappinelli, work in cancer ranges from molecular biology research to community outreach to cancer survivorship.

In his keynote address, titled “Nuclear Receptor Coactivators: Physiology and Pathology,” O’Malley presented a review of cancer advances at the molecular level, focusing on a specific family of steroid receptor co-activators that he calls “master genes.” Because these molecules are involved in an array of cell processes — from DNA transcription to translation — they have the potential to be intercepted in ways that can inhibit tumor growth.

“It’s pretty clear these molecules are extremely important in physiology and they have great application in medicine, both in understanding markers for disease, and also for treatment,” said O’Malley, the recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Science.

John Seffrin, Ph.D., CEO and president of the American Cancer Society, delivered the second keynote address, “Conquering Cancer in the 21st Century: Opportunities to Save More Lives Worldwide.” Presenting a broader, population-based approach to cancer prevention and treatment, Seffrin said that the United States has made significant strides in the “war on cancer,” but will not win the fight without aggressive advocacy and effective collaboration.

“What do we need to do? We need to sound the alarm. The magnitude of this problem is difficult to exaggerate,” he said. “We need to understand that we have an opportunity that our predecessors — scientists, public health professionals, doctors, policy makers — didn’t have: and that is that we can begin to talk about how to bring this disease under control as a major public health problem.”

Following their addresses, O’Malley and Seffrin were joined by GW scientists, physicians, and health policy experts to examine how best to bridge the gap between research and practice during a panel moderated by Stephen Patierno, Ph.D., executive director of GWCI.

Funding challenges, physician reimbursement issues, and a disconnect between basic science and the pharmaceutical and insurance industries were identified as major barriers to closing this gap. The panelists also expressed concerns with clinical trial funding, recruitment, and efficiency.

Health care reform, which places a bigger emphasis on prevention and provides insurance coverage for more low-income people, will help address some of these issues, said Leighton Ku, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of Health Policy and director of the Center for Health Policy Research at the School of Public Health and Health Services.

The rise of personalized cancer therapies, or treatments based on a patient’s genetic or genomic makeup, were also addressed by the panelists. Though such therapies hold incredible promise, more research and industry-wide support is needed for them to truly take hold in the clinic. “Personalized cancer medicine is here to say,” said Gregory Reaman, M.D., professor of Pediatrics at SMHS. “But I think we are still at the very, very beginning.”

Patierno concluded by inviting all the students in the audience — from undergraduates to post-doctoral fellows — to steer their careers toward cancer research in the forms of “community engagement, cancer treatment, diagnosis [and] therapy, not to mention policy, because at the end of the day, we need to catalyze systems change so that we benefit the most people that we can,” he said.

The day's activities culminated with a poster session in the Marvin Center, where students showcased their projects for their professors and peers. With topics ranging from cancer disparities to genetic disorders to exergaming — or video-games that promote physical activity — the posters represented the incredible breadth and depth of research conducted at GWSMHS.

Finally, an award ceremony recognized students in medicine, health sciences, biomedical sciences, and public health for the best posters and oral presentations. The 2011 Doris DeFord Speck and George Speck, M.D. Endowed Prize was awarded to Ahmed Mohyeldin, Ph.D., a fourth year medical student. Norman Lee, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Physiology was granted the 2010 Elaine Snyder Cancer Research Award; and Mary Ann Stepp, Ph.D., professor of Anatomy and Regenerative Biology and of Ophthalmology was presented with the 2011 Distinguished Researcher Award.

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