In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Cancer Act, Dr. Manoj Pillai shares his motivation for pursuing a career in cancer research:
What brought you to work in cancer research?
I was always fascinated by blood cells and their maturation, but imagined a career as a clinician treating leukemia. During fellowship I tried bench research in a blood biology lab and thoroughly enjoyed the concept of being a physician scientist that combined bench research with clinical care. This was the time when next generation sequencing approaches were taking off, and I was fortunate to gain experience in this area which helped me transition to an independent investigator. My group has continued to implement these molecular approaches to define mechanisms of oncogenesis in blood cells since then.
Where do you see the future of cancer research?
Cancer is not a single disease, and each cancer type responds differently to a specific therapeutic approach. I see continued evolution of multiple approaches, especially specific inhibitors targeted to individual mutations and immunotherapies (alone and in combination), all aided by technical advances in basic research. Non-targeted approaches like conventional chemotherapy and radiation will also continue to play a role for many years until we can further understand molecular mechanisms better, though all of us who practice oncology look forward to the day when the types of generalized toxicities that are associated with less targeted approaches is seen as a thing of the past.
What are some of the advances you have seen during your career?
During my career I have seen how we have come to understand molecular basis of numerous cancers through extensive implementation of molecular approaches, including next generation sequencing technologies. Others such as CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing has transformed cancer research in terms of ease of creating novel models critical to study cancer biology and precision genetic therapies are already being tested in clinical trials. Harnessing of the immune system to fight cancer is no longer limited to allogeneic transplantation, but has emerged as a powerful mode to treat many different cancers.
Why is it so important to encourage younger and diverse groups to pursue a career in cancer research? There are multiple compelling reasons to include and encourage younger and diverse groups in cancer research. The first and foremost is that only by creating a diverse and inclusive workforce in research and health care can we hope to start addressing the issue of widespread cancer health disparities. Another one is that human innovation is not limited to a few privileged individuals; by including a diverse pool of talent, we ensure that same old tired ideas from a select few are not the only ones that are picked up by funding. The current mechanisms of funding favor experience over innovative ideas resulting in fewer younger faculty remaining in research. Finally, building a diverse research workforce is also about fairness: most of my peers will agree that we are fortunate to be in this field that constantly challenges us to come up with advancements. This privilege should be accessible across the society and not just a few with elite training or networking.
Advice that you would give to someone considering a career in cancer research?
It is a hard and hyper-competitive field, but also highly rewarding. Good mentorship, hard work and believing in one’s abilities to make a contribution (however small and incremental it may seem) will go a long way to a successful and fulfilling career in cancer research. Beyond relying on mentors, I would also advise to develop your own peer group of researchers who will support you in tough times and celebrate your successes.