Featured Researchers

Bruce Clurman, José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research

Following the unexpected path

Dr. Bruce Clurman likes to take the unexpected path. This includes his approach to devising cancer therapies. Clurman studies molecular pathways that drive cells to multiply. Molecular changes in cancer cells can accelerate tumor growth by releasing the brakes that keep normal cells in check. Rather than trying an obvious fix, like a drug-based “emergency brake” for cancer cells, Clurman is trying the opposite tack: designing therapies that encourage cancerous cells to accelerate toward a deadly crash.

“The obvious way isn’t always the right way,” Clurman explained. Cancer cells make a perilous bargain: their unrestrained growth actually leaves cells vulnerable to deadly DNA damage, and Clurman’s work has shown him how to exploit this weakness. “We’re doing the opposite of what you’d expect. We want to take advantage of existing mutations,” he said, in an effort to push tumor cells toward levels of DNA damage they can’t survive.

Fred Hutch leadership and Friends of José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation recently recognized Clurman’s inventive approach by selecting him as the second recipient of the José Carreras/E. Donnall Thomas Endowed Chair for Cancer Research. Created by the U.S. branch of the foundation established by internationally renowned tenor, leukemia survivor and Fred Hutch patient José Carreras, the Thomas Chair is unique at Fred Hutch.

“It’s the only Chair that comes with an actual chair!” Clurman noted with enthusiasm. Originally belonging to bone marrow transplant pioneer and Nobel laureate Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, the stately chair is now housed snugly in Clurman’s Clinical Research Division office — right next to his standing desk. After a bike accident 10 years ago, Clurman realized that he felt more comfortable standing than sitting. “So I only sit in Don’s chair when I need a shot of inspiration,” he said.

Inspiration is essential when swimming against the scientific tide. The proteins that Clurman studies, which regulate protein degradation and cell division, are being intensely targeted by drug therapies designed to inhibit their activity. Clurman, however, seeks to exploit their activities to treat cancer. New understanding of how cells regulate these pathways, plus cutting-edge technology, provides a foundation for him to use different approaches to develop targeted drugs.

A lifelong dedication to “following the science” resulted from a nearly chance decision. Clurman, always interested in medicine and the molecular sciences, majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, expecting to pursue a career melding law and medicine. Instead he opted for a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree. “It was one of those decisions you make in five minutes as an 18-year-old that affects the rest of your life,” he said.

Cutting-edge bone marrow transplantation drew Clurman to Fred Hutch as a postdoctoral fellow. Splitting his time between the clinic and lab ever since, Clurman treats patients needing bone marrow transplants. In addition to being personally fulfilling, this helps him retain a wider perspective even as his research has zeroed in on single molecular pathways within cells. “It’s amazing how many research scientists have never met a patient with the cancer they’re studying,” he noted, adding that it’s particularly rewarding that his clinical and laboratory work are finally intersecting in the form of innovative new therapies designed to succeed where others have failed.

 

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