On any given day around Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and the Seidman Cancer Center, you can see Dr. Goutham Narla hurrying to his next meeting, oftentimes accompanied by a scurrying graduate student at his side trying to get another minute of his time. Dr. Narla (who holds a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree) is a busy man these days, divvying up his time treating high-risk breast cancer patients, running a cancer biology laboratory and working to bring the next generation of targeted cancer therapies to the clinic. Since he joined the faculty in CWRU's department of medicine in 2012, leaving a celebrated tenure at New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital, he has only picked up more responsibilities. Making the trip from NYC to Cleveland was Dr. Narla's equally accomplished wife, ovarian cancer researcher Dr. Analisa Difeo, and the two of them have already made a splash in the Cleveland scientific community with high profile publications and research projects. I sat down with Dr. Narla to learn a bit more about his goals for medicine and life, as well as to learn about the path that brought him to Cleveland.
Amar Desai: In layman's terms, can you give us the big picture idea about the research your lab performs?
Dr. Goutham Narla: My lab is focused on understanding and characterizing the key/central negative regulators of cell growth: In other words, we are interested in discovering the brakes on the car. Much of the current research efforts are focused on understanding the role of the accelerators, the oncogenes, in regulating cancer growth. To this end, many drugs have been developed to turn off these accelerators. My group is focused on developing new cancer drugs to turn on the brakes. Recently, our group has developed a first-in-class series of activators on the protein phosphatase PP2A, a key protein involved in many cancers. We are currently exploring the mechanism by which these small molecules activate this protein and are working on defining the optimal patient populations to test this approach clinically. We hope to start first in human clinical trials in cancer patients in 2016. We are also using these small molecules to better understand the mechanisms that regulate protein phosphatase function. [Editor's Note: We're not quite sure how "layman" that actually was, but it's interesting nonetheless.]
AD: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in academic research today?
GN: There are both many opportunities and challenges in academic research. There has never been a time with more technology and know-how available to try to answer interesting scientific questions. In addition, the number of incredible biomedical researchers available to collaborate allows us to tackle some of the most complicated and scientifically interesting questions in ways that we could only have dreamed of 10 years ago. On the other hand, the required level of support from the National Institute of Health and other governmental agencies has not kept up with the pace of discovery and innovation. In addition, this challenging funding environment has, in my opinion, created an environment that is counterproductive to fostering the next generation of young physicians and scientists and it has been a passion of mine to try to mentor/support this next generation of researchers. I also believe that the increased focus on short-term gains and metrics of success have stifled our ability to take chances and engage in paradigm-shifting research with long-term potential impact on both science and medicine.
AD: How did you become interested in medicine and research?
GN: My mother is a physician, my father is a scientist and so I of course became a physician scientist. Just kidding — my journey was not nearly as linear or planned out as that. I was actually an economics major in college and I wanted to do investment banking. What I began to realize though is that my parents loved their careers and their work, and so I figured I needed to at least give it a try. So I took a year off during college to work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories where I was mentored by Dr. Eddy Rubin and Dr. Kelly Frazer. I absolutely and completely fell in love with research and with science during that year and subsequently decided to enter medical school. The constant formulation of hypotheses, the rigorous testing of one's hypothesis with experiments, discarding/refinining /validating these ideas with the hope of ultimately translating them to new therapies was and is one of the greatest thrills of my life. I also realized that, for me, seeing patients, participating and coordinating their care was and is a privilege; it constantly grounded me and focused my research efforts while my scientific background made me very aware of the importance of practicing evidence-based medicine in my clinical practice.
AD: You're in a very unique situation in that your wife is another pioneering cancer researcher. Do dinnertime conversations involve mechanisms of drug resistance, or is there any Real Housewives talk like the rest of us?
GN: My wife is my best friend, closest confidant and collaborator. We have several grants together, have published numerous papers together and have two amazing children and wonderful families. We talk about everything at the dinner table from politics, to fashion, to life; we actually rarely speak about work at home. In terms of Real Housewives talk, I will take the Fifth on that; but I do love a lot of those shows on Bravo and we can definitely gossip about celebrities with the best of them. We work very hard but we also love to enjoy our time together and with our family. We travel, we cook and we spend weekends together.
AD: Can you talk about the transition from Mt. Sinai to Case Western? How does the scientific environment in Cleveland compare to that of New York City?
GN: The greatest regret that I have about Cleveland and moving here is that I wished that we had done it sooner. I love this city, the people, the scientific environment here at CWRU and University Hospitals. I find that this is one of the best institutions that I know of in this country but without the attitude: People are so approachable here and collaborative. I have more collaborators here than I had in my entire 14-year career in New York. The same is true for people outside of work. This is a high-powered academic institution that has all of the opportunities and ability of any institution in New York, but is more accessible and approachable.