A Day with the Vera Bradley Chair in Oncology
Bloomington, Indiana (May 30, 2007) —Talking with Linda Malkas, Ph.D., our Vera Bradley Chair in Oncology, is much different than chatting with most researchers. She doesn’t use terms like gravimetric analysis, angiogenesis, or intracellular molecules in conversation. Instead, she explains that it isn’t important that every member of her team received straight A’s in college. “It’s hard to judge a person’s résumé. Some people with wonderful credentials don’t work well with others. I need team players,” says Malkas.
Team players are exactly what you’ll find in Dr. Malkas’s lab (shared with her husband and fellow researcher Dr. Robert Hickey). Many of the 10-member team followed her from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 2000 when she accepted the Vera Bradley Chair position at the Indiana University Cancer Center. These researchers work together closely, writing papers and performing experiments on a daily basis. Acting as mentors for their group, Drs. Malkas and Hickey guide the experiments, turning lab results into papers and writing grants to enable their team’s research to continue.
When I visited Dr. Malkas’ lab, I hoped to write an article on a “typical day.” But I soon learned that no day here resembles another. Teamwork, not a time clock, is the critical factor. “Everyone here knows what needs to be done,” Malkas notes, adding, “We don’t set a time that our daily lab begins, as (everyone) puts in whatever time is necessary. On any given evening, there will be team members here past 10 pm. There’s no need to punch a time clock.”
Investigators and testers work directly with clinicians so laboratory findings can be easily transferred. On the day I visited, I was surprised to find that no one in the lab was looking directly at breast cancer cells or even at breast cancer at all. For example, one group in the lab focuses on a type of cancer, neuroblastoma, that affects children under the age of five. The physician leading this research came to Dr. Malkas many years ago because he found a correlation between the research he was conducting and what Dr. Malkas’s team was doing with breast cancer research. He has been a member of her team ever since.
This approach is working very well. So well, in fact, that the researchers at the Indiana University Cancer Center (Malkas and Hickey’s team) have discovered a way to identify a protein in breast cancer cells, raising hopes that it will lead to early detection of the disease. An antibody has been identified that can differentiate between healthy cells and malignant breast cancer cells. The results of the research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December 2006. This is an extraordinary accomplishment!
Dr. Malkas and her team continue to advance their research daily in the lab. With a big smile, Malkas says, “I am continually learning from my team. In fact, what is so nice about our jobs is that it feels like we never left school. We don’t take naps, but we do have flexible schedules and we are always in a learning environment. Some of our staff take classes here at the University, and even though I don’t do a formal lecture, I am teaching every day!” Indeed, this extraordinary group of talented individuals is learning more each day about the root cause of breast cancer and passionately seeking a cure…and their teamwork is making the difference!
Editor's Note: Dr. Malkas has since moved on to continue her work at City of Hope’s Beckman Institute in California.