Dr. Eric Holland is a physician and a scientist, a common combination in the world of medical research. Less common is the demanding combination he chose — neurosurgery and molecular biology.
“People told me I couldn’t be a surgeon and do the type of research I wanted to do,” Holland said. “And they said I really couldn’t do it if I became a neurosurgeon.”
Holland rose to the challenge to achieve his dual dream as an internationally renowned brain cancer surgeon and researcher. Recruited from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Holland is senior vice president and director of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he is also director of Seattle Translational Tumor Research — an initiative targeting all cancer types and spanning all divisions and disciplines.
Working at the intersection of multiple disciplines, Holland strives to understand the molecular basis of brain tumors and develop new approaches to their treatment. He specializes in the research and treatment of glioblastoma — the most common brain cancer in adults — and metastatic brain tumors.
Holland compares his dual career to being bilingual. “Once you’re fluent in both languages, you’re fine. It’s getting there that’s hard,” he said.
Getting there involved an unusual trajectory that wasn’t initially aimed at medicine. Holland earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry as part of the pulp and paper technology program at Miami (Ohio) University. However, instead of leading him into industry, it inspired an interest in academia, which led him to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Chicago, where the idea of becoming a physician/scientist crystallized. The question was what kind of doctor to become.
The answer came as Holland completed various rotations in medical school at Stanford University. “The one I really liked was neurosurgery because it’s so demanding,” he said.
Hand in hand with Holland’s decision to become a neurosurgeon was his decision to specialize in cancer because the biochemical characteristics of the disease mirror his training and interest in molecular biology. “The molecular field is a great place to be because that’s where the most interesting and striking advances — the cool stuff — has happened over the last 20 years,” Holland said.
Those advances include Holland’s work to develop mouse versions of brain cancer that mimic how tumors behave in humans. Using the mouse models, Holland distinguished between genes that cause tumors versus genes that merely characterize them and found there are several forms of glioblastoma with distinct molecular profiles.
Holland also found that some of the tumor cells behave like stem cells, which can be resistant to standard therapies. Based on successful results in mice, Holland is now conducting clinical trials for new drugs and drug combinations targeting resistant cells.
Holland clearly has a lot on his plate — but not enough to stop him performing surgery three or four times a month. “I am a hybrid of the two — research and surgery,” he said. “It’s who I am.”