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Passionate About Patients: Q&A With New NBTS Chief Scientific Officer, Kirk Tanner

Published on November 30, 2018 in Research, Our Impact, Leadership Spotlight

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced Kirk Tanner, PhD, as the National Brain Tumor Society’s new Chief Scientific Officer. The official announcement contained a good deal of biographical information regarding Kirk’s education, work history, and experience helping to develop new medicines as a senior director, staff scientist, and oncology research leader for a major biopharmaceutical company.

But, Kirk’s passion for cancer research, helping patients through the development of new and better medicines, and excitement over joining the brain tumor cause, obviously can’t be fully understood from his resume…impressive as it may be. So, we asked Kirk to answer a set of questions so that the brain tumor community can better get to know our newest colleague here at NBTS.

Q: What first got you interested in studying science, and particularly biochemistry, and when? Did you always know you wanted to work in biological/life sciences?

A: I certainly didn’t always know that I wanted to work in biological/life sciences. In high school, I was much more into the humanities and literature and, truth be told, did not excel in science/biology/math. Go figure!

But, I was extremely fortunate to have an amazing undergraduate organic chemistry instructor who opened the vault and awakened my interest in science. I’ve never looked back and continue to be amazed at the wonder of science and what can be accomplished by intellect and more importantly dedication and hard work to solve challenging and fascinating problems.

Q: What type of research did you work on throughout college?

A: As an undergraduate, I worked on trying to understand the biophysics and biochemistry of an enzyme called “glycyl-tRNA Synthetase,” which directly involved in how proteins are made in our bodies. As a graduate student, my PhD thesis was focused on understanding how epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) works. Interestingly, EGFR is overexpressed and often unregulated in glioblastoma (GBM) and can contribute to uncontrolled tumor growth. My post-doctoral training focused on a variety of proteins/enzymes that included phosphatases (enzymes that remove phosphates from key signaling molecules, often involved in signaling pathways in brain tumors), kinases (enzymes that add phosphates from ATP to key signaling molecules) that are often unregulated in cancer, and emerging epigenetic enzymes such as histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs) that play roles in cancers.

Q: What first got you interested in cancer research?

A: I really can’t point to one specific thing. It has been more of a convergence of separate experiences over my entire academic and industry career. Without a doubt, one key component has always been the huge unmet medical need and the potential to make a real difference in the lives of patients. Cancer is such a challenge because it is literally hundreds to thousands of separate diseases, and for many of these there are no effective therapies and certainly no cures. There is a lot of important work to do.

Q: What did you learn, experience, and sharpen-your-skills at during your years in the biopharmaceutical industry that you think can apply and help NBTS and our research programs?

A: Many things! I think one of the most important, though, is how powerful a cross-functional team can be when everyone takes ownership toward the ultimate goal. While team members bring their own individual talents and expertise to discover and develop new therapies, high functioning teams have members that understand the big picture and learn other important aspects of the project/program. I think this is key as NBTS grows our research programs. Our research programs will be seamlessly integrated with our other programs and departments to ensure that the NBTS research function is robust and built for success and to endure.

Q: Why were you interested and willing to make the seemingly major switch from industry to a nonprofit patient advocacy organization?

A: The company I was working for made a strategic decision to move out of the oncology space a few years back, so this was an opportunity for me to get back to a patient population that I am passionate about.  I also think this is a wonderful opportunity for me to leverage my experience as an oncology project/program leader in the industry setting and apply it to the NBTS research programs which have cultivated a remarkable world-class research team and institutional network.

Q: What excites you most about joining NBTS and working in the brain tumor community?

A: Lots of things about joining NBTS excite me! I guess if I had to pick one that excites me the most, that would be working with the entire NBTS team and network to first identify, and then help accelerate the progression of, the most promising new therapies to patients with brain tumors.

Q: Where do you think you can contribute the most?

A:  I hope to contribute on many levels and I think my oncology industry experience on both the discovery and development side will be extremely beneficial as NBTS continues to cultivate and expand an integrated platform to bring new therapies to brain tumor patients.

Q: What’s your vision and/or hope for the progress and impact that NBTS can make moving forward through its research programs?

A: To me, it’s all about the NBTS research platform/program identifying the most promising new experimental therapies and then helping to get them to brain tumor patients as soon as possible to be tested in innovative trials. NBTS will be a leader in facilitating this and will ensure that patients and patient advocates are a part of the process and are integrated into the decision making process with biopharmaceutical companies, research, and clinical oncology experts.

Q: What have you learned in your first few weeks with NBTS?

A: A couple of things rise to the top. First, what a wonderful group of talented and dedicated colleagues! I am super impressed at everyone’s skills and dedication to patients, both children and adults with brain tumors. Truly inspiring!  Secondly, I was fortunate to attend, as a member of NBTS, the annual Society for Neuro-Oncology (SNO) meeting in New Orleans, and I was blown away by how integrated and respected NBTS is within the brain tumor community. The reach, influence, and impact that NBTS has with research experts and their teams/clinical cancer sites, biopharma, and patient advocacy groups was eye-opening, to say the least!

I hope you’ll all join the rest of us at NBTS in giving Kirk a hearty welcome!

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