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lab chat: conversations with the smartest people in the cleveland biomed community

If you’re anything like me, you clicked this link because you can only read the Wikipedia entry for The Sixth Sense so many times before you start getting angry at yourself for not figuring it out sooner, and you need a distraction before you go and do the same for Planet of the Apes. Here's another option: Let's go back to our 11th grade biology class and see where we might have ended up had we not kept confusing mitosis with meiosis.
We live in one of the most important cities for biomedical research in the country, and yet it often feels as though the general public has no clue about what's going on behind the doors of research labs at the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University. From the (not altogether inaccurate) stereotypes of nerds in white lab coats to the (wholly inaccurate) horror stories of generating human centipedes, the truth about biomedical research in Cleveland is that it’s making groundbreaking discoveries on a daily basis with the ultimate goal of curing disease.
Of course, it's not so easy to make it past those secure lab doors. Allow me to be your tour guide as we offer a behind-the-curtain look at some of the brightest minds in science in an attempt to convince you that next to Jim Brown and Michael Symon, these scientific superstars are as "Cleveland" as Cleveland gets.
My name is Amar Desai and I’m currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Hematology at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). I grew up in Beachwood and still recall what I was wearing when Albert Belle got busted corking his bat (Bugle Boy jeans/jacket combo). In 2008, I graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in Molecular Biology. I spent the next five and a half years working towards my Ph.D in Molecular Pharmacology at CWRU. Now, as a research associate, I work in the field of regenerative medicine alongside a lot of very talented scientists to better understand the biology of adult stem cells, with the goal of maximizing the therapeutic potential of these cells. More on that another day.
The goals of this column are straightforward: I want Clevelanders to better understand how important our city is in combating many of the world’s most devastating diseases; I want to make science more accessible so that both children and adults alike will understand what biomedical research means; and lastly, I want to be Bill Nye the "Science Guy."
So, without further ado, I present our first guest: Dr. Stanton L. Gerson. Dr. Gerson is one of the preeminent physician scientists in the country and serves as the director of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and the National Center for Regenerative Medicine at CWRU, and the newly built Seidman Cancer Hospital at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. In addition to running a very successful scientific lab for over 20 years, he is a Harvard trained hematologist and a physician at UH. Dr. Gerson is recognized not only for his role as an important leader in turning Cleveland into a major medical hub, but also for his research, which has generated multiple patents in the field of gene therapy and has been licensed for commercial development.
What is your background and how did you become interested in scientific research?
As the son of a physicist active in ionospheric science, Science magazine was in the house from an early age. I did science projects with my older brother in the basement from the age of 11, with submission to National Science Foundation (NSF) science fairs all the way through high school. Then I did laboratory work while an undergraduate, medical student, a resident and fellow. I did my first bone marrow transplant in a mouse in 1974 as a medical student.
Give us your elevator pitch on your research and the implications it might have on human health in the future.
Let me start by saying I wish it was easier to cure cancer through research. Our entire medical industry in cancer research is focused on developing and identifying cures. My research focuses on the interplay between stem cells, DNA and cancer. We have found important links between abnormalities in DNA repair and dysfunction of stem cells populations. This led us to conclude that DNA repair integrity is essential for stem cell function and longevity. Likewise, abnormalities lead to susceptibilities of stem cell populations and even their conversion to cancer. Our laboratory studies the biology of DNA repair and stem cells leading to identification of treatment options for patients with cancer and correction of stem cell disorders. Over the past 15 years, three of our treatment concepts developed in the laboratory have entered clinical trials, and all continue to be pursued.
I would like to say that we have made major discoveries that will lead to cures of cancer and of stem cell abnormalities. But these are indeed complex biological processes, perhaps even as fundamental as life itself. Nonetheless, the paradigm holds true that we are chipping away at these basic biologic errors, uncovering their complexity and devising tactics that benefit normal stem cells while delaying the growth of tumors, make them easier to treat and building better treatments based on our biological discoveries.
Tell us about the most exciting day you’ve had in your scientific career.
Every once in a while in science you do the correct experiment based on the right hunch and the biology works exactly as you predicted. In 1990, we created a DNA repair mouse (a genetically modified mouse containing a mutation in a gene responsible for repairing your DNA) that we thought might be protected from developing leukemia after exposure to a very toxic chemical. Once we bred a litter of mice, rather than understanding the biology changes within the mouse, we simply treated the mice we had with the chemical. All of the animals that carried the new DNA repair gene survived the chemicals whereas all the others developed leukemia. We knew that was a home run. It was the very first demonstration that a single gene could protect us from leukemia due to chemicals.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into science?
Scientists ask questions and solve problems. Anyone in science needs to be fascinated with both opportunities. One’s fascination allows each of us each to withstand the long delayed gratification of answering an infinite series of questions, receiving funding and recognition to support the research efforts, and to develop that single right experiment to answer the most important question. But never try to do it alone -- it takes a big and diverse team of investigators to really ask the best questions and come up with the best solutions. You stop doing science only when you stop asking questions.
When you’re not in the lab, what’s your favorite thing to do in Cleveland?
Road biking, running and the Cleveland Orchestra take the cake. For eight months of the year, my garden is my pastime. Now I manage a perennial garden that is really quite spectacular. During the winter I plan the garden for the next year. 

Click here
for more information about the work Dr. Gerson does at CWRU and University Hospitals.
Click here for more information about the progress of Dr. Gerson’s work using gene therapy to treat glioblastoma multiforme.

The progress that gene therapy has made in the last few years has been an exciting one, and we will continue to follow Dr. Gerson’s work for the next major breakthrough!

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