PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Christine Lovly Gains Worldwide Renown in Cancer Research

Sep 04, 2014 at 03:33 pm by Staff

Damon Runyon was a colorful, chain-smoking writer whose short stories in the 1930s became the basis for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. The Runyon legacy lives on beyond show business, especially for Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, a Vanderbilt assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology.

After the author died from throat cancer in 1946, his friend and radio personality Walter Winchell established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. Last year the foundation bestowed its Clinical Investigator Award to Lovly, providing $450,000 over three years for her research. Since receiving the Runyon award, Lovly has garnered other prestigious grants. She recently was the recipient of the LUNGevity Foundation’s Career Development Award for Translational Research, which provides $300,000 over three years.

Lovly’s research focuses on ALK+ lung cancer, where the ALK gene gets inappropriately activated in tumors. There’s already one FDA-approved drug (and more on the way) that inhibits the activity of ALK, but virtually all patients eventually develop resistance to the therapy. The goal of Lovly’s research is to develop novel therapeutic approaches that delay or overcome acquired resistance to ALK inhibitor drugs.

“At a certain point, everyone develops this acquired resistance,” said Lovly. “It’s not a matter of if … but when … this occurs.” Her ongoing studies examine how ALK transmits signals to promote cancer growth, and how those signals get altered in the context of acquired resistance. This research has already led to the development of a novel ALK inhibitor that’s now in Phase I studies.

Lovly grew up about 25 miles from Runyon’s beloved Broadway in Williston Park, New York on Long Island. She decided to pursue an MD/PhD dual degree while still in high school. “I had a wonderful high school chemistry teacher who encouraged me to take a summer job at a cancer hospital in New York,” she recalled. “From that point on, I’ve stayed totally focused on medicine and research.”

Lovly earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, then entered the MD/PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis. She came to Vanderbilt in 2006, spending two years in internal medicine residency and four years on a hematology/oncology fellowship. She was the chief fellow during the 2011-2012 academic year before joining the faculty in 2012. Her laboratory is located in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), which also provides support for her research.

Lovly has played an integral role in VICC’s My Cancer Genome online resource since its inception. The website provides clinically relevant information on tumor gene mutations and their implications for targeted care in cancer. When her mentor and former division chief William Pao, MD, PhD recently left the staff to lead oncology research at Roche, Lovly became the site’s co-editor with Mia Levy, MD, PhD.

“My Cancer Genome is a freely available web-based resource that focuses on tumor mutations and the implications these mutations have for the treatment of cancer patients,” explained Lovly. “The content is predominantly geared toward physicians to be used to educate and inform the patient at the point of care and to help facilitate enrollment in clinical trials based on the mutational profile of the patient’s tumor.”

Lovly’s daily routine is enough to exhaust even the tireless Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls. “I split my time between the lab, clinic and office,” she said. “I meet frequently with students and postdoctoral fellows, reviewing their experiments and progress. And a good portion of my day is spent in teleconferences with collaborators at other institutions around the world. Then there’s the time spent writing and reviewing manuscripts, both my own and those sent by colleagues.”

Despite this grueling schedule, Lovly finds time to enjoy the outdoors with her latest “project” – a two-year-old deaf boxer. “I got my boxer, Teagan, from Middle Tennessee Boxer Rescue,” she said. “They have been wonderful in helping me teach Teagan sign language so that we can communicate with each other. He knows signs for sit, stay, come, and more. I take him to the parks in Nashville, and the outdoor beauty is one of the things I really love about this area. I enjoy all the green space and open vistas. You don’t get much of that in New York.”

In particular, Lovly enjoys the Radnor Lake area and Percy Warner Park. “Growing up in New York, the only ‘wildlife’ I ever saw were squirrels and pigeons,” she said. “I remember the first time I saw a turkey outside my apartment in Tennessee. I heard a weird noise about 5 a.m., and I was so surprised to see the turkey that I called my parents in New York to tell them!”

Lovly also enjoys traveling. “I am very fortunate that I get to travel to attend conferences and give lectures,” she said. “On a personal note, my best recent vacation was a trip to Costa Rica – an amazing place with very nice people. I enjoyed zip-lining and swimming in the volcanic hot springs there.”

For Lovly, cancer research isn’t just theoretical. Her clinical work puts her in close touch with cancer patients and what they’re experiencing. “My research is very translational,” she said. “I get to study patient tumor samples instead of just modeling disease. It’s a great opportunity because the patients are teaching us.”


Dr. Lovly’s Faculty Page

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