U A B C O M P R E H E N S I V E C A N C E R C E N T E R 15

scientist profile

in virology, who received the first call from

UAB in 1985. “UAB has always had a strong

reputation in virology, so he said, ‘Well, I

think I want to go look,’” Dr. Benveniste

says. “I said fine, but that I would not be

moving to Birmingham, Alabama.

“Of course, I said that without ever hav-

ing been here, which is how many people

respond,” she says. “I remember my husband

called me after his interview and said, ‘It’s

really nice here. The university is really nice.

The city is really nice. It’s hilly, and the trees

are blooming. It is just beautiful.’” That report

was enough to convince Dr. Benveniste to give

UAB a look, and shortly thereafter, both she

and her husband were members of the UAB

faculty. That was more than 25 years ago.

Still, Dr. Beneviste’s plans didn’t include

staying long enough to develop a Southern

accent. “Our original intent was not to stay

more than five years,” she says, “but the

opportunities that arose for both of us at

UAB were really wonderful. We have had

and continue to have wonderful colleagues.

We also have wonderful graduate students

and postdoctoral fellows in our lab, which

has really driven the science.”

CELL COMMUNICATION Research in Dr. Benveniste’s laboratory

centers on neuroimmunology: the study of

how the immune system communicates with

the nervous system. “What fascinates me is

how a cell can integrate all sorts of differ-

ent inputs,” Dr. Benveniste says. “How does

a cancer cell do that and have the ability

to continuously proliferate and evade cell

death?” Her laboratory has begun focusing

on astrocytes, the most common type of cell

within the central nervous system. “We start-

ed studying how astrocytes and immune cells

communicate with one another,” she says.

“But the astrocyte also is the cell most often

transformed into a brain tumor.”

Discussions with neuro-oncologist and

Cancer Center senior scientist Yancey

Gillespie, Ph.D., led Dr. Benveniste to her

interest in brain tumors that arise from

astrocytes. “We’re studying how the immune

system and inflammation affect the growth

of glioblastomas,” the most deadly type of

brain tumor, Dr. Benveniste says. “We are

doing preclinical trials right now in animal

models with specific inhibitors that block the

immune system and inflammation, and we’ve

seen very beneficial results.”

Although her role as department chair

keeps her away from the laboratory bench

more than she’d like, Dr. Benveniste says she

takes great pride in the research conducted at

UAB, in her lab and in her colleagues’ labs.

“There are a number of examples at UAB of

a finding that starts out as a basic science dis-

covery and then evolves to importance, par-

ticularly in cancer,” she says. “Through many

years of hard work and investment, antibod-

ies developed at UAB are now in clinical

trials for several different cancers. Much of

that credit is due to the interactive network

of scientists here.”

THE PLACE TO BE After long hours at her desk, Dr.

Benveniste opts for time at the weight bench

and the ballet barre. “I do all that to stay in

shape because I really like to eat, but it is also

really wonderful just to clear my brain,” she

explains. Also an avid reader, she’ll happily

pick up “anything and everything,” she says.

Once unwilling to consider living in

Birmingham, Dr. Benveniste now thinks of

herself as a local and feels deeply the pride

associated with UAB in the Birmingham

community. “I think people are very aware of

this phenomenal medical center in the midst

of the city and of all the university does for

the economy,” she says, “and I think they

have a genuine desire to see the institution

continue to grow.”

She refers to the Cancer Center as the

“crown jewel of UAB,” particularly because

of the clinical trials and the level of care that

affect patients on a personal level. “There

really is a lot of hope here within the Cancer

Center and the School of Medicine,” Dr.

Benveniste says. “In respect to the Southeast,

certainly in terms of a comprehensive cancer

center, there is no doubt that UAB is the

place to be.”



– Tika Benveniste