Like many brainy Detroit kids who excelled in math and science, Dr. Muneesh Tewari figured he'd become an engineer at one of the auto plants that ruled the local economy.
But when his high-school biology teacher got him a summer job at a cancer-center laboratory, tinkering with automobile engines didn't seem so interesting anymore. The intricacies of the human body captured Tewari's imagination.
"I just got the bug," he said. "I knew I wanted to do medical research."
Today, Tewari straddles the worlds of laboratory science and oncology. He's part of a new breed of researchers who believe that in order to learn about many-faceted diseases like cancer, one must appreciate the complexities and interactions of the whole body, like a network.
Since coming to the Hutchinson Center in 2005, Tewari has focused within those networks of cells on particular molecules called micro-RNAs. These molecules act as brakes on different parts of a cell, keeping genes in check. He and his colleagues are trying to understand why the brakes fail — allowing unchecked cell growth — in cancerous ovarian and prostate tumors.
Tewari's work holds promise for both treatment and early detection of cancer. If he can identify which micro-RNAs are altered in cancer, the path to developing drug treatments against them is a lot shorter than with typical protein-targeting drugs.
Certain microRNAs are abundantly made by tumor cells, and Tewari recently discovered these in blood samples — a finding that he called "very surprising." If this early work continues to be promising, a blood test could be used to detect lots of different types of cancer or to show how well a treatment works.
Tewari concedes that the hurdles — from securing funding to getting experiments to work — can be daunting. But his persistence in these areas has allowed him to make significant strides in his work. In recognition of these strides, Tewari received the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation's highest honor for scientists at the beginning of their independent research careers.
Tewari is grateful for the acknowledgment and said that caring for patients makes it easier to weather research challenges and teaches him how to triumph over setbacks.
"In the clinic, I see cancer up close and personal," he said. "With patient care, you get exposed to what the problems really are, and you encounter questions that you might not think of without seeing the disease in that light."