Purdue signature

Marietta Harrison

Associate Vice-President for Research
Director, Oncological Sciences Center
Associate Director, Purdue University Center for Cancer Research
Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

Signaling a call for personalized medicine: how cancer can help drive revolution

We may never find a magical medical pill that cures all types of cancer, but Marietta Harrison says that recent advances are broadening the horizon for personalized medicine.

The age of personalized medicine has arrived. One day soon, a person's genetic makeup may be able to help doctors better detect some cancers and prescribe individual, more affordable treatments, broadening the horizon for personalized medicine.

“It’s exciting to be part of a research revolution, especially in the field of cancer research,” says Harrison, “because we now know that one size does not fit all.”

Harrison is playing a key role in how cancer is driving the personalized medicine movement. She helps lead a team of more than 50 scientists, engineers, clinicians, statisticians and health-service researchers in Indiana who are dedicated to finding clues in blood and tissue that will indicate who will get cancer, when it will start and what treatment will be most effective.

“What we really want to do is to prevent cancer from developing in the first place. But until we can do that, we need to develop tools to search for signs when tumors are still too little to see,” she says.

During the early 1980s, she helped lead a team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle that discovered the protein tyrosine kinase Lck, a significant finding for helping understand how cancer develops.

Tyrosine kinase Lck, known scientifically as Lck, is part of large family of signaling proteins that drive cell division and are found inside specialized cells of the immune system called lymphocytes.

A mystery for cancer researchers, Harrison says, is that the immune system actually impedes efforts to combat the spread of cancer. So harnessing the immune system to aid in the prevention and treatment of tumors is a major strategy in the war against cancer.

“Cancer is a disease of cell signaling where something has gone wrong in the accelerator or the brakes of the cell,” she says, likening cells to the controls of an automobile. “We’re researching what regulates Lck and why it accelerates or brakes.”

According to Harrison, the toughest part of cancer research is the daily reminder of how personal and significant this grand challenge can be.

More than 12 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year, the American Cancer Society reports, and it accounts for 7.6 million deaths annually, or 13 percent of all deaths worldwide. By 2020, the World Health Organization estimates that 16 million new cases of cancer will appear annually, and deaths from cancer are projected to reach 12 million by 2030.

That’s why Harrison, the 2007 winner of the Collaborator of the Year Award from the Indianapolis-based Walther Cancer Institute for her collaborative efforts with the Indiana University School of Medicine Cancer Center, is on a mission.

“All researchers share a common thrill of discovery — it’s in our bones,” she says. “The old adage applies to research as well: It’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Research is about repetition, working diligently to find answers. It’s about the mundane for that second of thrill. What motivates excellence in research is the pursuit of the unknown, and that changes as the science changes.”

About Purdue Researcher Marietta Harrison

“The era of personalized medicine in the 21st century represents a unique collaborative opportunity between basic scientists and physician scientists. This is the crossroads of interdisciplinary research, and Marietta Harrison at Purdue epitomizes the type of researcher that is needed for the future. She is an extraordinarily personable and knowledgeable scientist who grasps the importance of the clinical arena. The collaboration between the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, Purdue’s Oncological Science Center, and the Purdue Center for Cancer Research has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, particularly working with Professor Harrison.”

— Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer, Director, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, Associate Dean for Cancer Research, and the H.H. Gregg Professor of Oncology

Photos by: Andrew Hancock