Tell me about your background.
I grew up in Portage, Michigan, which is the southwest portion of the state. I attended Michigan State University for 5 years, where I completed a combined BS/MS program in Chemistry. Following completion of my studies, I moved to St. Louis in 2011 where I had the wonderful opportunity to join the medical scientist training program (MSTP) here at Washington University.
What led you to study at Washington University?
Washington University was a clear powerhouse in both academic research and clinical medicine. It has a strong history as the largest physician scientist training program, and most importantly it has proven to be an extremely collaborative environment. As a plus, there is much less snow than Michigan.
What are your future career goals/plans?
I want my career to have a meaningful impact on cancer treatment. In the Spring of 2019, I will complete the MD/PhD program and participate in Match Day. Thereafter I plan to continue my residency training in oncology, but specifically which field will be influenced by my final years of medical training. Having completed a dual degree program, I hope to have opportunities in my career to not only treat patients, but to also advance cancer treatment through laboratory research.
Tell me about your thesis research.
In the laboratory of Dr. Kareem Azab, my thesis research focused on boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) for cancer therapy. BNCT relies on the principle that boron containing cells are sensitized to neutron irradiation. In contrast to traditional radiation therapy, neutron irradiation is non-ionizing by nature, and only boron containing cells will have a significant cytotoxic outcome following neutron irradiation. For cancer treatment, the challenge is delivering boron preferentially to the tumor, which was the focus of my thesis research. In order for the full clinical potential of BNCT to be realized, there is a dire need to either develop novel tumor-targeted compounds or improve the localized delivery of existing BNCT agents. Under the guidance of Dr. Azab, we have made advancements to address both these needs. First, a series of novel boronated compounds have been synthesized capable of targeting the hypoxic (and often therapy resistant) tumor microenvironment. Our lead compound, B-381, represents a new class of BNCT agents in which their selectivity to tumors is based on a hypoxic tumor metabolism. Second, the local tumor delivery of several boronated agents has been improved utilizing a novel liposome delivery system.
Was there something in particular that led you to this subject of research?
From a young age, I have always been interested in science. In high school and college, I became particularly interested in organic chemistry. I always enjoyed learning how things worked on a mechanistic level – it was always easier for me to remember something if I understood on a deeper level. I never liked feeling I was just memorizing random facts only to regurgitate them later on a test. I suppose this desire for a mechanistic understanding piqued my interest in laboratory research. Dr. Azab was a great fit for me in the Department of Radiation Oncology, because his laboratory gave me opportunities to use my research background in organic chemistry, but more importantly he trained me as a cell biologist.
What are your future plans for this subject/study?
Dr. Azab and I hope to submit one final manuscript before I return to my 3rd clinical year. I look forward to continuing my education these final years of medical school.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your research/thesis?
Aside from the normal laboratory frustrations that we all experience when experiments do not work, one of the harder challenges was juggling raising a family during graduate school. I am a proud father to 2 boys, Jack (2) and Henry (1). My wonderful wife Sarah has supported all of us over these years, and she has played an equally important role in all of this.
Tell me about your thesis defense. How did you prepare? What was the defense day like?
My thesis defense in the molecular cell biology program was August 25th, 2017 and it went well (I passed!). I suppose defending on your birthday probably translates into good luck. Both my mentor, Dr. Kareem Azab and his wonderful research team helped me prepare and refine my presentation, so that was a huge help. The actual defense day was not too nerve wracking for me, but it helped that I practiced several times.
Any other comments?
I will miss seeing many faces in the laboratory, but I am excited to continue my learning in the clinic. I am really grateful to my mentor Dr. Azab, the Department of Radiation Oncology, and the MSTP program for the excellent training, support and opportunities they have provided me.
Micah Luderer is a member of the Azab Lab.