RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: Mark W. Kieran, MD, PHD

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Mark W. Kieran, MD, PhD

Director, Pediatric Medical Neuro-Oncology

Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center

  1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?

I was born in an old age nursing home just outside Niagara Falls, Canada but grew up initially in Toronto. I did my undergraduate degree in biochemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton, then my PhD in Immunology at the University of Alberta before going to medical school (with a part-time research fellowship) at the University of Calgary. I then undertook a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Pasteur Institute in Paris where I cloned NfKB. I then returned to Canada and did my pediatric residency at the Hopital de Montreal pour enfants. Planning to do my pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, my division chief (who was American) pointed out that I had received training throughout Canada and Europe but never in the US. He considered this a huge gap in my education and convinced the Hospital for Sick Children to pay for my fellowship in Boston at the Dana-Farber Boston Children. Once in Boston, my kids were born and for them, Boston was home (although I should mention that all three of them now live in Canada). It turned out that Harvard was a pretty good place to work and so I stayed.

  1. What are you researching right now?

My primary research interests have two major areas of focus. The first in the identification of novel molecular targets in pediatric brain tumors, especially astrocytomas (low-grade, high-grade and DIPG) and personalized therapies to treat these tumors both more effectively and with less toxicity. The second area of research is to better understand the tumor microenvironment. While the mutations that lead to cancer growth are important (and the focus discussed above), tumor cells are not islands. They are influence by, and directly influence the cells around them. This includes recruitment of new blood vessels or co-opting of the vessels already present. They also need to regulate the immune and inflammatory response that the body mounts against them. Understanding these processes I believe will be critical for the long-term success in the treatment of cancer.

  1. Who is your all-time favorite scientist and why?

While there are many in history that once could draw from (Sir William Osler is definitely one of them and one of my son’s is named for him), I had the unique opportunity to work with and have an office next to Dr. Judah Folkman. His discoveries are too numerous to count but what made him unique was the way he saw medicine and science. When the rest of us could not understand why a series of experiments weren’t working the way they were supposed to, Dr. Folkman was always the first to recognize that the experiment was right and the dogma was wrong.

  1. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I was an artist for many years and love to draw (mostly portraits). Medicine has conspired to take all of my time so that I never seem to do it anymore.

  1. Favorite food?

Indian! Not so hot that you need a tongue transplant the next day but enough that you can still taste the spices a few hours later.

  1. Why science?

I can’t spell to save my life and although bilingual in English and French, I could never figure out when to use a comma, semicolon or all of that other stuff that our English teachers kept trying to make us learn and so I definitely had to stay away from the social sciences. Science (math, chemistry, physics, biology) just made sense. I had always thought that I would be a vet but during my PhD studies, the development of monoclonal antibodies (which was a really hot technology way back then) for cancer clarified my final direction.

  1. Who/What has inspired you to work on DIPG?

Pediatric neuro-oncology takes a special kind of person. It is certainly not the easiest of the sub-specialties. What neuro-oncology does offer is a chance to make the greatest impact and nowhere is that more true than for DIPG, the disease that needs it the most. This is a disease that was demanding that we change the status quo and trying to have that kind of impact was what I wanted to do in medicine and science.

  1. What are you reading right now?

While the kids were growing up, especially my daughter, we had a deal that we would read all the same books, which means I would read anything that she was going to read so that we could discuss it together (a great way to stay connected to your teenage daughter). Of course I did get some strange looks while reading the Twilight and similar teen series on the plane a few times. With the twins now off to college, I have a group of spy like novels that I read while stuck on the tarmac although it is interesting that I cannot even recall the name of the current hero.

  1. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?

You saved the toughest one for last. There are all of the usual ‘follow your heart’, ‘do what drives you’, etc and these are all true.  For most research fellows however, I try to show them that a research career can be both fascinating and exciting but usually interspersed with long periods of negative results and failed hypotheses. It requires perseverance, self-confidence and long term commitment. It is not a great way to get rich but it is a great way to have a fascinating career that allows you to makes a true and lasting impact on the world.

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