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.
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.”