On July 1, MUSC welcomed two senior administrators from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) who shared the moving van that brought their belongings south in June. Stephen A. Duncan, D.Phil., the new Chair of the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology, is married to Paula Traktman, Ph.D., the new Dean of the College of Graduate Studies. Duncan was the Director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and Vice Chair of the Department of Cell Biology, Neurobiology, and Anatomy at MCW. Traktman was the Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, as well as the Associate Director for Basic Sciences in the MCW Cancer Center. In her new position at MUSC, she also will hold faculty appointments in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the Hollings Cancer Center. Duncan and Traktman bring an impressive combination of research, teaching, and administrative skills to MUSC. Progressnotes spoke with them about their plans for their units and their basic science research interests.
PN: What attracted you to MUSC?
SD: We knew a lot about MUSC from Dr. John R. Raymond Sr., MUSC’s former Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, who is now the President and CEO at MCW. He brought a lot of what he admires about MUSC to MCW.
PT: Life has chapters, and for many professional and personal reasons, I think for both of us it was time for another chapter. Miraculously, two excellent jobs became available at MUSC. I had been Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at MCW for 17 years and loved it and thought Stephen would love being a department chair. I’ve also been active in graduate education, so for me being the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies would be the next step that I’d want to take.
PN: What are your plans for your respective units?
SD: Dr. Roger Markwald has done a fabulous job during his tenure as Chair. The department is focused on cardiovascular disease and that has given rise to the collaboration with Clemson University in the Center of Biomaterials for Tissue Regeneration.
I have a background in stem cell biology, so I’d like to keep the existing areas strong, but also bring in new faculty and researchers who use stem cells in their research and can integrate the strengths of the department with other MUSC missions. I’m particularly keen on researchers who see a connection between their basic work and work that’s being done in clinical departments, so that it’s more . . . well, translational is maybe too strong a word but maybe more applied. For example, I’d like to expand the number of researchers on campus who use stem cell technologies to look at a broad range of diseases, everything from neural disease, such as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, through inborn errors in metabolism to diabetes.
PT: Perry Halushka deserves tremendous credit for his hard work and success in building the graduate school. There are a lot of training grants to support diversity, program development, and student development. The school has a nationally funded Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) that is well regarded, and it has strong associate deans and a dedicated administrative staff. It’s by no means a fixer-upper—quite the opposite—but all programs can benefit from an outside look and fresh leadership.
Clearly, diversity is a strong national issue and I’d like to build upon and expand the diversity initiatives that the school already has in place. I also think that we’re going to put together some master’s programs that are interdisciplinary among several health professions. It’s the wave of the future. The final thing I’ll say is that I’m committed to exploring the possibility of building a master’s program in science communication.
PN: Tell us about your research, Dr. Duncan. You’re a principal investigator on three grants with direct costs of around $2.5 million and a co-investigator on two grants.
SD: My lab is examining the role of specific factors that have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and the control of cholesterol levels. The disease we’ve made the most progress on is familial hypercholesterolemia, a liver disease that results in cardiovascular disease. We’ve made liver cells from patients’ stem cells, recreated the disease in the culture dish, and then screened for drugs already on the market that can be used to treat the disease. We’ve found that certain heart failure drugs lowered cholesterol levels in avatar mice with human livers as well as in human patients, and we have a paper about our findings under review at Science Translational Medicine.
We’re also using this same technology with induced pluripotent stem cells to investigate the liver’s role in rare forms of metabolic disease in children as part of a large, multi-center collaboration to introduce the use of stem cells into personalized medicine.
PN: Dr. Traktman, are you planning to continue your research at MUSC?
PT: Absolutely. Fifty percent of my time will be my research and I am bringing three NIH grants to MUSC. A major focus of my lab is the analysis of the life cycle of vaccinia virus, which was the vaccine used to eradicate smallpox. Vaccinia is a complicated virus that’s an excellent model system for many of the processes that are essential for the replication of human cells. We are seeking to understand all of the steps from when the virus comes in to the birth of a thousand viruses 12 hours later. These processes are illustrative of all the things that human cells do every day. At the heart of that is DNA replication. Our work also has implications for the development of antiviral therapeutics. Poxviruses are emerging as important for oncolytic therapy. So, if you are going to put these viruses in people to eradicate tumors, you had better be buttoned up about knowing every aspect of this virus so that if something goes wrong you are able to combat the virus.
A second area of work in our lab concerns a cellular enzyme that when overexpressed is associated with cancer and when deficient can impair fertility. I’m looking forward to expanding this project here. MUSC is a great institution for taking basic research to the clinics. With a Clinical and Translational Science Award that has created your South Carolina Clinical and Translational Research Institute, Hollings Cancer Center, a strong drug discovery initiative, and the MSTP programs, MUSC will be a prime location for taking the lessons from research and translating them into the care of patients tomorrow.