Georgetown Awards First Molecular Research Chair to Lombardi Cancer Expert
Washington, D.C.—Most of us are all too familiar with the effects that psychological stress can have on our bodies. But Georgetown University Medical Center’s Albert J. Fornace, MD, professor of biochemistry and molecular & cellular biology and oncology, is committed to researching how environmental stresses can cause normal cells to become cancerous—and is developing ways to stop this from occurring. Fornace’s innovative work in the area of cellular response to radiation and other environmental toxins has earned him the Molecular Cancer Research Chair at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, which will bewhich will be presented at a formal ceremony on February 28, 2007, at 5 p.m. in Riggs Library, Healy Hall, on the Georgetown University campus.
The Molecular Cancer Research Chair is given to a distinguished researcher in the field of DNA repair and cellular stress response. Designed to support laboratory operations, the Chair recognizes a leader in the field, providing support for original research that will provide a greater understanding of the molecular processes that lead to the development of cancer. This understanding will lay the foundation for new methods of preventing and curing cancer.
The Chair was endowed through a generous bequest from Charlotte G. Gragnani. Grateful for Lombardi’s in-home care and support during her husband’s treatment for prostate cancer, Gragnani supported Lombardi’s research initiatives and patient care programs throughout her life. Her vision was to see Lombardi continue to develop and improve cancer care.
Fornace, the first recipient of the Chair, joined Georgetown last fall from the Harvard School of Public Health, where he was the director of the John B. Little Center for the Radiation Sciences and Environmental Health. As the Molecular Cancer Research Chair, he will continue investigating exactly what happens to cells when they are stressed or injured—by anything from radiation to toxic substances—work that has thus far revealed processes underlying development of cancer and other diseases. Fornace’s research has shown that diseases develop when stress-related signals inside the cell alter the expression of multiple genes involved in cell-cycle control, programmed cell death, and DNA damage processing.
“Cancer still is a rare event considering the number of cells at risk,” said Fornace. “And what we’re focusing on is the stress-signaling pathways and the regulatory mechanisms that prevent the development of cancer.”
When healthy cells are subjected to stressful environmental conditions—such as sunburn or radiation—their protective mechanisms kick into gear. Fornace was selected for the Chair because of his pioneering work elucidating the complex pathways involved in this cellular response. Among other findings, he has discovered that key genes that control growth, such as the well-known tumor suppressor genes p53 and RB, play central roles in some of these stress-response signaling pathways. He is also well-known for the discovery and cloning of the Gadd (growth arrest and DNA damage inducible) genes, which protect the skin against cancer, help regulate another key oncogene, and play a critical protective role in the human immune system.
Fornace received a $1.4 million grant in 2006 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to investigate whether astronauts’ exposure to radioactive particles in space may damage their cells and put them at risk for intestinal and other cancers. For example, the risk of colon cancer is known to be increased in atomic bomb survivors.
In addition to his research on the molecular pathways of cancer, Fornace is also studying cellular stress responses on a broader level. By understanding genome-wide response to stresses like radiation or chemical toxins, Fornace will be able to develop biomarkers to detect exposure in humans. He is specifically looking for markers in both gene expression and metabolites which could be detected in easily obtainable samples like urine, saliva, sweat, and blood. With this kind of test available, emergency response personnel would be able to identify and triage patients who were significantly exposed.
“Al Fornace is an internationally recognized scientist who has made fundamental discoveries in cellular stress response signaling,” said Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center Interim Director Anatoly Dritschilo. “We are proud to recognize his achievements and his commitment to continue his innovative work at Georgetown University as the first recipient of the Molecular Cancer Research Chair.”
Dr. Fornace is available as a media expert in the areas of molecular oncology and cellular responses to radiation and chemical damage. To schedule an interview, please contact Becky Wexler at 202-687-5100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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