Quest to solve breast cancer
Sept. 10--RENSSELAER -- Notions of the Capital Region as a scientific Smallbany frustrate Douglas Conklin.
In the University at Albany Cancer Research Center -- a 9-year-old building that the associate professor blithely termed "Joe Bruno pork" -- Conklin and his team have earned a patent for identifying a gene as a possible target for breast cancer drugs. The gene has been known as the cause of another disease -- an immune disorder affecting mostly men.
The patent is the result of years of effort casting a broad net to understand how breast cancer invades a woman's body, experimenting, watching and waiting until "the breast cancer cells tell us what's important to them," as Conklin put it.
The work is no different from that going on at research centers with international reputations, he said.
"It cheeses me off to no end, when somebody (local) says, 'We're collecting money for St. Jude's hospital,'" said Conklin, referring to the well-known children's cancer center in Memphis.
Conklin himself came to Albany by way of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, known for its groundbreaking work on DNA. (He does a mean impression of James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, who directed that lab.)
As blunt as he is in his opinions, Conklin is patient and plainspoken in explaining the complexities of breast cancer research conducted at his lab. His team of 10 scientists are engaged in multiple experiments connected by the common thread of breast cancer.
It was through manipulating the regulation of various genes -- turning one gene after another "off" to see how cells would function without it -- that they discovered breast cancer cells die when the Bruton's tyrosene kinase gene is silenced.
BTK is known for its role in X-linked agammaglobulinaemia, a rare immune deficiency disease that affects one in 200,000 newborns, according to the National Institutes of Health. A mutation in the gene destroys the body's immune system response, including the production of antibodies, making even slight infections dangerous. Because the BTK gene is on the X chromosome, women carry it and pass it along to children, but men are almost exclusively the victims.
When researchers in Conklin's lab turned BTK off in breast cancer cells, the cells died. While the discovery is unique, it fits into an increasingly common type of finding, Conklin said -- genes known for their role in one function (or malfunction) turn up critical in another.
"The bleeding edge is that cells are really complex, and until you actually drill down into them, you don't really know how complex they are," Conklin said.
Conklin is quick to acknowledge the persistence of the team of relatively young scientists he supervises, from the U.S., as well as Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
"My job is to write grants and tell bad jokes," he said.
He runs his lab with an eye toward making them fun places to work, motivating assistants by encouraging them to create spaces they enjoy, to clock in at times that suit them -- and to work hard once they get there. The result is an amicable atmosphere. Doctoral student Jan Baumann cranks German thrash metal music as he focuses intently on tissue cultures. While Baumann works in a room on his own, it's clear Conklin, a one-time punk rocker, is unfazed by the music's incessant percussive throb.
Several bottles of wine and one of champagne sit atop a high shelf in Conklin's largely unadorned black-and-white office, with a view of the Capitol. Gifts from students, the wines are not of noteworthy vintage, Conklin jokes.
"If they know what good wines are, they aren't going to make it as scientists," he said.
As for the champagne: "You never know when something good is going to happen."
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