Channing Der, a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member and Kenan Distinguished professor in the Department of Pharmacology, researches ways to decrease the rate of pancreatic cancer and introduce new therapies for patients. He recently received the National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award, given to researchers who study science with breakthrough potential, to advance his research in pancreatic cancer. Daily Tar Heel staff writer Nathan Wesley spoke with Der to learn more about what this grant means for the future of his research.
The Daily Tar Heel: What do you research, and can you simplify your research in a way that the average person would understand?
Channing Der: For pancreatic cancer, the genetic basis is now well known. What we know is that there is mutation in a key gene called KRAS. The mutation in this gene drives all pancreatic cancers. If you look at pancreatic cancers, the frequency of mutation of KRAS approaches over 95 percent. The research that we are doing is to attempt to understand how KRAS drives pancreatic cancer, and once we understand how KRAS drives pancreatic cancer, to determine ways of trying to block KRAS function. If we can block KRAS, we are pretty confident we can block pancreatic cancer.
DTH: What is the ”breakthrough potential” in your research?
CD: Our focus on our research is to try to identify new therapeutic approaches for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer, of all our cancers, is the deadliest cancer we have in that the five-year survival rate is a very disappointing 8 percent. The research that is funded on our new NCI grant will allow us the opportunity to explore new directions and try to develop new therapies for pancreatic cancer. We hope that from our research we can identify new therapies and hopefully impact pancreatic cancer patient survival.
DTH: Is it our bodies making too much KRAS that causes pancreatic cancer?
CD: KRAS is a gene that is essential for normal function. If we did not have the normal KRAS gene, we would not exist. However, what happens in cancer is that our bodies are exposed to carcinogens and mutagens throughout our life and at one point, the KRAS gene becomes mutated. In most cases, hopefully our bodies will repair that damage, and we’re fine. One of the problems associated with cancer is that our ability to repair DNA damage becomes suboptimal and a KRAS mutation occurs and it’s not corrected. So when that mutation happens, that will drive the body to pancreatic cancer.
DTH: How did you get into cancer research, and what impact do you hope for your work to have?
CD: I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and I was majoring in biology, and I decided that science was something I wanted to pursue for my professional ambitions. What I really wanted to do was make an impact on our society. I wanted to give back. So I decided to take advantage of my interest in biology but to apply it to develop better therapies for cancer. This has been a long-standing interest for me since undergraduate school.
DTH: What will the money from the NCI Award go toward?
CD: This particular grant is relatively unique compared to most of the grants that we get from the National Cancer Institute. It is unique in two ways. One is the amount of support that we get. Your typical NCI grant will give you about $250,000 dollars a year. This grant will give us $600,000 dollars a year.
The second thing is your typical NCI grant will last five years and this special NCI grant will give us support for seven years. If you do the math, you can figure out that this is equivalent to getting three typical NCI grants. Getting a NCI grant is not a simple or easy task in that less than 10 percent of the grants that we submit to the NCI get funded, meaning most of the time, we are not successful. We spend a lot of time writing grants, and that takes a lot of time and effort. So getting this grant that gives us the equivalent of three NCI grants and lasting seven years instead of five years will free me from having to spend a lot of my time writing NCI grants. One of the frustrations of being a researcher is we spend way too much time writing grants rather than actually doing the research. Getting this grant allows me to focus on what we really enjoy doing, which is the research.
DTH: What work do the students that you mentor do that contributes to your work?
CD: We have many students in the lab. We have about six undergraduates currently working in the lab, and many of them do research for honors as part of their undergraduate requirements to get their degree. We also have students that are going after their PhDs. The money that we get from this grant will allow us to simply train more students. I get contacted at least once a week by undergraduates looking for opportunities to do research and I wish I could take every one of those students and give them that opportunity, but I can’t. Getting this grant has given us the opportunity to take more undergraduates than we normally do. When I was an undergraduate, I was trying to figure out how I would pursue a career in cancer research but, as you know, oftentimes getting your foot in the door gets you experience. If you don’t have experience, you can’t get your foot in the door. Can’t get your foot in the door if you don’t have experience.
DTH: What’s one thing about your job that people might not know or realize?
CD: Most people probably don’t appreciate the difficulty of research. Research should be pursued by those who can deal best with failure, deal with the long road from a discovery in the lab to implementing the discovery with cancer patients. What is not fully appreciated is the odds of success and the time needed for success is daunting. For example, the number of lab-based discoveries that lead to a successful drug is one in five to 10,000, meaning the vast majority of ideas fail. The second daunting number is the time from a discovery to the approval of a new therapy. The time that it takes to do that is 15 and 20 years.
DTH: What are you doing when you are not working?
CD: I love basketball. I play basketball and I also like watching basketball so you can imagine that I go to a lot of Tar Heel basketball games. I played basketball in high school, and I continue to play because I really do enjoy it.