Perfecting the Translational Balancing Act

Sitting Down With… Jennifer Grandis, Professor, Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, Associate Vice Chancellor – Clinical and Translational Research, University of California, San Francisco, USA.

By Charlotte Barker 

You’ve chosen a dual career as both clinician and researcher – why?
Primarily, I was motivated by the problems that confronted my head and neck cancer patients when I was in residency. I was being taught how to surgically excise their tumors but, more often than not, such patients still died of cancer, and the surgery had profound consequences on their appearance, and their ability to speak, swallow, taste and interact with the world. I found that very unsatisfying, and as it was not a cancer that was commonly studied by biologists, I felt that if I was really going to make a difference to these people’s lives, I needed to learn about cancer biology.

Having a clinical practice as well as doing research has been a really comforting balance because research requires coping with disappointment and rejection, while taking care of people is immediately gratifying.

What drives your research?
I would call it precision medicine. We’re trying to elucidate the most effective targets for each patient or patient subgroup. Historically, we’ve treated cancer as one disease, and either cut it out and/or given radiation or chemotherapy that indiscriminately kills dividing cells. That is not effective in a lot of cases, and particularly in head and neck cancer. Now, we have elucidated the genomic basis of the disease and discovered that instead of being one cancer, it is dozens of different cancers, each slightly different. We’re diving deep into these subtypes to identify the features that are critical for propagation, with a view to developing treatments. The last drug approval by the FDA for head and neck cancer was in 2006, so we really need new treatment options.

Read the full interview here