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Ralph Sanderson, Ph.D., a senior scientist and member of the Cancer Cell Biology program at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, says it's important to know your “place” in life.
When Dr. Sanderson first started studying key molecules that drive cancer growth 25 years ago, he had no idea that compassion for patients - a traditionally clinical view of medicine - would lead him to an important place in his life's work. Now a Professor of Pathology at UAB, Dr. Sanderson's work is leading the way to uncovering how the molecules syndecan-1 and heparanase work together to promote growth of tumors in multiple myeloma and breast cancer patients. Dr. Sanderson has devoted his career to studying these molecules and is making great progress in developing therapeutics that target their activity and block tumor growth.
Venturing into the world of research
“Initially, I did not know that I was going to be a cancer biologist,” Dr. Sanderson says. But the science and discovery swirling around his molecules of interest were irresistible to a Ph.D.-trained investigator who studied cell biology and anatomy. After training at UAB, he left Birmingham to do postdoctoral work at Stanford University School of Medicine. He then moved to Arkansas where he spent 16 years working and researching at the University of Arkansas Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
It was there in Arkansas where Dr. Sanderson had the opportunity to get to know some of the myeloma patients being treated, causing him to realize that his place in life was to advance the science and ease the suffering of patients.
“You start off in research because you really love science. It is intellectually stimulating and you like working in the lab. But what actually happened to me is that over the years I had the opportunity to see what this disease did to people,” he says. This drove his interest to develop new therapies that would have fewer side effects and less negative impacts on patients as compared to current treatments. The goal is to help patients to actually live with the disease and not be physically debilitated by the rigorous treatment.
“Multiple myeloma is a very difficult disease to treat. For 10 years I worked with a clinical group studying myeloma and actually had the opportunity to watch myeloma patients deal with this cancer, and it is just devastating,” Dr. Sanderson says.
Making an impact
Turns out that “place” is key to the science behind his work, as well. Dr. Sanderson and his research team work to understand how tumor cells interact with their environment, what scientists call the “tumor microenvironment.” Tumors are actually composed of both the tumor cells themselves along with the surrounding “normal” cells in the body, called the “host” cells.
“What happens is the tumor cells alter those host cells and use them to sustain the tumor and help it grow and spread,” Dr. Sanderson says. “What we have learned is that syndecan-1 and heparanase acting together help establish a tumor microenvironment that stimulates tumor growth. This is partly accomplished by the stimulation of blood vessel growth which is necessary to feed the tumor and keep it growing.”
Myeloma tumors grow predominantly within bone, and breast cancer often metastasizes to bone. Much of the work in Dr. Sanderson’s lab focuses on how cancers grow and spread within the bone. “Tumor cell growth in the bone is a very bad thing for cancer patients,” Dr. Sanderson says. “Once in the bone, tumors are very difficult to treat and the destruction of bone by the tumor has a significant impact on the quality of life of cancer patients. So understanding how tumor cells grow and interact in the bone microenvironment is very important to studying these cancers.”
A team of researchers dedicated to the fight
The goal of Dr. Sanderson’s lab is two-fold: one is to continue to understand how the microenvironment drives cancer, and the other is to develop the tools that will inhibit those interactions with the potential of becoming therapeutic treatments. In his lab, a team of eight researchers collaborate and conduct experiments. Just recently, Yang Yang, M.D., Ph.D., and Vishnu Ramani, Ph.D., received funding from the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation to focus on developing therapeutics for the disease.
”The research team in my lab is a group of bright and dedicated scientists who share the common goal of making new discoveries that will lead to better treatment of cancer patients,” Dr. Sanderson says. “As I work closely with my staff, one of the most important concepts that I work to help them understand is the importance of what they are doing. I try to remind them on a regular basis that there are people fighting cancer every day at the Cancer Center and across the world, and we have an opportunity to make their lives better.”
Dr. Sanderson and his team have also developed strong collaborations with scientists at leading institutions across the world, including the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the University of Wisconsin, the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and the Ronzoni Institute in Milan, Italy. “By collaborating with other leading institutions we have the ability to bring discoveries to patients quicker and more effectively,” Dr. Sanderson says.
Dr. Sanderson and his researchers consistently publish results of their findings in journals such as Blood and most recently in the Journal of Mineral and Bone Research. In early spring, he received a highly coveted R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute for a total of $2,6 million for five years. He currently has three active R01 grants.
Yang Yang, M.D., Ph.D. – Assistant Professor of Pathology
Anurag Purushothaman, Ph.D. – Research Associate
Vishnu Ramani, Ph.D. – Postdoctoral Fellow
Joe Ritchie – Ph.D. student
Li Nan – Research Assistant
Ivonne Rivera – Research Assistant
Lave Peavler - Rotating Lab Student
Ginny Duke – Administrative Assistant