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Q&A with Analisa DiFeo, PhD, and Goutham Narla, MD, PhD

Teaching, learning, and improving medical care for cancer patients have motivated Analisa DiFeo, PhD, and Goutham Narla, MD, PhD, for their entire careers. The husband-wife-team are forging a trail of discovery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Q&A with Analisa DiFeo, PhD, and Goutham Narla, MD, PhD

Analisa DiFeo, PhD; Goutham Narla, MD, PhD

Narla is a both a clinician oncologist and an expert in drug discovery. DiFeo is an expert in the basic science that underlies the growth, spread, and treatment of gynecologic malignancies. Both also primary investigators (PIs) in a number of research projects. Both run labs within the School of Medicine, and they are the parents of three small children. Still they both find time and energy to continue to teach and discover. For instance, the couple, along with chef Floyd Cardoz, founded the Young Scientist Foundation to teach and mentor high school students and to help them see the possibilities of a career in science. 

Q: What motivates you to mentor so many young scientists?

Gouham Narla (GN): We have both been very fortunate over our scientific careers to have great mentors. We now want to pay that forward.

Analisa DiFeo (AD): I am very passionate about it. For me, mentors are the main reason that I am where I am today. I want to bring in those students who may not have the background or the pedigree for science and show them about the impact that sciences can have in the community.

GN: We also want to create a formal structure within which high school students and undergraduates can learn about opportunities to perform biomedical research and the joy that a career as a scientist can bring. We also want students to understand that they can make a difference in the world through biomedical research and the development of new drugs and therapies.

We also want to show young scientists about the passion we have for science. Some see it as academic and stoic and they don’t appreciate how fun, engaging and exciting it can be.

Q: Does working for the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine create professional synergies between the two of you?

GN: We collaborate professionally in a number of capacities within the School of Medicine. We have numerous shared collaborative research projects. We have joint lab meetings. We have co-mentored students. We have active grants together, and numerous publications together. We have a lot of synergy at work.

In fact, it was collaboration that brought us together. We met through our work at Mount Sinai when Ana and I were pursuing our graduate studies. We were working on the same gene/protein in two collaborating labs. Our PhD mentors began to collaborate and we started working on a collaborative project focused on determining the role of the KLF6 tumor suppressor gene in human cancer

AD: Working so closely has been very helpful professionally in part because we are the most critical of each other. We can be brutally honest with each other and gain deeper insight into the question that we’re trying to answer.

We are confrontational with each other sometimes during our joint lab meetings. A lot of students have told us that they enjoy it. They see that you can have healthy discussion about a scientific problem, even if you disagree. It’s helped the people in our labs see deeper into the nature of the scientific process. They have become more constructively critical of each other’s work.

Q: What motivates you as scientists?

AD: It has always been my curiosity. I can never take anything at face value. I always have to dig deeper and figure out the core of the problem. I tend to fixate on things, so if I’m working on a problem, I’ll work on it for years and years and years. I really want to understand things at the deepest level. It really comes down to an innate curiosity and never taking things at face value, always trying to understand the intricacies.

GN: My focus is really on understanding biology and the ways that diseases manifest themselves. I want to understand the mechanisms by which cancer spreads and to develop drugs that target those processes.

As a physician scientist, I think that having the privilege of caring for patients, it’s all about diagnosis and then understanding what’s gone wrong. Why has the cancer spread? What are its vulnerabilities? Can we develop drugs to address those? That’s what drives me in the research that I do.

Q: Does science influence your politics and other aspects of your lives?

GN: I think science affects every aspect of my life and decisions I make both politically and professionally.

Q: What do you see as the most important developments in your fields?

AD: We’ve used the same drugs to fight ovarian cancer for the past 50 years. Unfortunately, survival rates rarely exceed 20%. In the past year, the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPAR) inhibitors have been approved by the FDA. We are all very excited that this new class of drugs will present a real step forward.

Also, the new technologies available to us for genetic sequencing, proteomics, enhancer sequencing, and others are tools that we can use to identify the genes and genetic aberrations that are driving these cancers. The next step will be to develop drugs that will target these changes.

For our lab, the way of the future is understanding the genetic landscape of these tumors and really trying to pinpoint the multiple genes that are dysregulated and then to develop drugs that target these genes. That’s how Goutham and I first started collaborating.

One thing I love about being at Case is the opportunities for collaboration. When I first came here I was the only one working on ovarian cancer and now there are 14 labs focused on different aspects of the disease. We can collaborate at any time. All 14 of those PIs use different approaches including biomedical engineering, nanoparticle development, and drug development. It has really enhanced my research.

GN: The excitement in drug development is that there are new classes of drugs that are being used to treat patients and to target tumor characteristics that were not druggable in the past. Over the past few years we’ve really had immune-oncology explode onto the scene. Some of these drugs are very promising. This shows us that there is more we can do to help our patients than we thought possible until just recently. We don’t have to just keep developing the next taxol-based therapy or the next platinum-based therapy.

We are very hopeful about the future of oncology.

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