Donita Brady, PhD, a Presidential professor of Cancer Biology and member of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the Perelman School of Medicine
Donita Brady, PhD, a Presidential professor of Cancer Biology and member of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the Perelman School of Medicine, planned to pursue a career in sports medicine. But a transformative mentor altered her path, and now, at Penn Medicine, she is leading a team that is working to understand how cancer grows uncontrolled in cells and discovering novel ways to stop it.
Brady also devotes time to supporting and increasing racial diversity and equity in science, and in cancer research especially. “Intentional initiatives at our institutions and funding agencies aimed at the retention and recruitment of Black trainees and professors doing cancer research are critical to creating preeminent academic research environments,” she said.
In this Q&A, Brady discussed her cutting edge research, and how she went from being a star athlete to becoming a star scientist.
What inspired you to do the research you’re doing?
I’m a native Virginian and grew up in Virginia Beach. My twin brother, Jonathan, and I were always active in our local sports communities playing softball, basketball, and football. For that reason, I was always interested in pursuing a career in sports medicine to maintain that connection.
Like many who end up pursuing a path in scientific research, I had a transformative educator. My AP Chemistry teacher sparked my interest in science and supported my goal of majoring in chemistry in college. I had the opportunity to be a recruit to play Division I softball at Radford University in the southwest part of Virginia and there I was encouraged to look into summer research experiences at Research 1 institutions by my advisor. I was fortunate to be accepted into the Carolina Summer Fellowship Program run by the Department Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was there that I fell in love with the pursuit of scientific discovery and I haven’t looked back since.
Beyond being given that chance, I was exposed to research during that fellowship that my lab still focuses on today.
What research are you currently undertaking?
Our research focuses on the lines of communications, called signaling pathways, within our cells that control their ability to grow by helping them respond to nutrients and environmental changes.
In cancer and other diseases, many of these signaling pathways are always on and as a consequence the cells grow uncontrollably. Excitingly, our research has uncovered that the micronutrient copper, which many of us think about in terms of pipes in our homes or the coating of a penny, is essential for steps in these pathways that are overactive in human cancers. Therefore, we aim to repurpose drugs that are FDA-approved to eliminate excess copper in patients with a rare genetic disorder, Wilson disease, to block the signaling pathway from functioning and in turn, decrease the growth of the cancer cell that requires it.
Most recently, our group discovered that the process by which cells recycle nutrients by breaking themselves down, called autophagy, was copper-dependent due to one of the components of the signaling pathway requiring copper to function. We capitalized on this dependence and found that KRAS mutant lung cancer needs copper to perform autophagy, which suggests that copper chelators (chemical compounds able to selectively bind, due to its structure, a particular atom) may be one alternative therapeutic angle.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist and where do you see the greatest opportunities?
Like many other scientists, the things that keep me up at night are maintaining funding for our research lab, training and inspiring the next generation of scientists, and continuing to ask questions in my area of research that will be impactful. I remain encouraged about continuing to be innovative in each of these areas.
Specifically, for my research area, we are starting to scratch the surface of a paradigm shift in which metals directly regulate protein function in ways that weren’t known before. Therefore, it’s an exciting time to start to build the next set of tools and systems that are going to be necessary to fully understand the framework of metal regulation of protein function and how to employ that knowledge in different disease settings.