|Summer 2010-Scientist Profile|
One thing Christopher Klug, Ph.D., enjoys about his job is figuring out how things work—how various biological pieces and processes fit together in the framework of cancer development and treatment.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dr. Klug has a background in construction work. Now co-director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Experimental Therapeutics Program, Dr. Klug was born and raised in a blue-collar family in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. “My father, brother and grandfather were all carpenters,” he says. “I never thought I was going to be a scientist when I was growing up.”
Dr. Klug left Ohio to attend Wheaton College just outside of Chicago. There he used his carpentry skills and experience to support his way through four years of school. But his family’s trade was not what Dr. Klug had in mind for a career.
“I was interested in impacting people and their health,” Dr. Klug says. This desire was inspired in part by a summer Dr. Klug spent working as a carpenter in rural sugar can camps in the Dominican Republic, where he saw people with severe health needs living in poor conditions. He would eventually receive his bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Wheaton and his Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Chicago in 1993. He then spent four years completing his postdoctoral work at Stanford University in California before UAB recruited him for a position studying stem cell biology.
Stem cells are cells in the body that possess two key properties: self-renewal, or the ability to undergo numerous cycles of cell division to replace themselves, and multipotency, the capacity to differentiate into specialized cell types. Stem cells are rare—only one in about every 100,000 cells in the bone marrow is a stem cell—and they are extremely difficult to grow outside the body.
Dr. Klug’s lab focuses on how the body maintains blood-forming stem cells throughout the life span of an individual—in other words, how they self-renew. “Stem cells are the only immortal cells in the blood system,” Dr. Klug says. “While the rest of the blood cells die off and need to be replaced on a daily basis, the stem cell population keeps regenerating the blood and immune systems. It’s an amazing cell.”
Dr. Klug and his team are now able to take adult stem cells from a donor and expand them in a dish about 50 times their original number. This is a significant development with two key implications for treating disease. The first affects bone marrow transplantation. For example, patients with late-stage breast cancer could basically act as their own donors. The blood stem cells could be drawn, grown, purified away from the cancer cells, and then reinfused into the body.
The second application involves gene therapy. For a condition such as sickle cell disease, the mutant gene causing the disease could be replaced by a normal copy of the gene using a patient’s own blood stem cells. The corrected stem cells could then be used to regenerate the blood system of the patient who had the defective red blood cells. This process would allow researchers to cure essentially any blood-related genetic disease.
The challenge in realizing these treatment goals, of course, is the difficulty of growing sufficient numbers of stem cells in the laboratory—a major focus of Dr. Klug’s research. “While we can now grow and expand stem cells 50-fold, which is a big step, we’d really need to expand them 1,000-fold to use them clinically,” he says. “We’re trying to understand processes that no one has understood before. We have to be creative and always be thinking and problem-solving.”
Strong Sense of Satisfaction
When he’s not in the laboratory, Dr. Klug enjoys anything related to the outdoors, whether it’s hiking, biking or going to the beach. He even uses his carpentry skills, helping out with community projects through his church.
Dr. Klug also enjoys spending time with his family, which includes his wife of 27 years, Patty, a part-time nurse at The Kirklin Clinic®, and his son Nathan, a sophomore majoring in mathematics at Duke University.
While Dr. Klug enjoys living in Birmingham, he appreciates the opportunities he has been given to generate knowledge that could help save lives. “Trying to understand how things are put together and how they work is one reason why I enjoy what I do,” he says. “Interacting with colleagues from all over the world to answer these questions is exciting. There’s a strong sense of satisfaction knowing that we’re making a contribution to help humanity.”