Distinguished Professor in Science and Mathematics Jill Macoska
“Sometimes just by looking at a tumor we can’t be sure how it is going to progress,” says Jill Macoska, Alton J. Brann Endowed Distinguished Professor in Science and Mathematics, and director of the UMass Boston Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy (CPCT). The CPCT’s chief aim is to develop biomarkers that will measure tumor progression in much quicker time. “Currently, no good tools exist for tumor subtyping,” explains Macoska. “If you’re looking at two tumors there is no way to tell which will respond to conventional therapy.” Crude imaging such as MRI, metastasis, and regression are the only ways to measure tumor progression. “But cancer patients don’t have time. You want to know sooner if the treatment is working.”
The collaboration with the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center has brought a whole host of resources to UMass Boston students involved in cancer research. Some of these include experienced faculty, over 1,000 researchers, the best technology, research funding, and a large tumor collection. Students also have access to the research done at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center’s seven member institutions: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Boston Children’s Hospital; Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Harvard Medical School; Harvard School of Public Health; and Massachusetts General Hospital. “Both UMass Boston and the Commonwealth have shown a real commitment to cancer research,” says Macoska. Both have put in a lot of resources, and Massachusetts has committed a large amount of money to its Life Sciences Fund.
At the CPCT, students are learning how to do translational cancer research. They are developing imaging mechanisms and biomarkers for tumor subtyping which will help the clinicians determine therapeutic approaches and whether the treatment is hitting the right markers on tumors. This lab-to-clinic approach teaches students how to take a discovery from the lab and make it applicable in clinics. Students not only do research, they actively develop future medications and clinical procedures. “This [kind of research] is a new direction for our College of Science and Mathematics,” asserts Macoska.
Along with training students to do cancer research, the CPCT is also forming alliances with the local biomedical and pharmaceutical industry. The center is training students to have careers within this industry and to use the skills they learn at UMass Boston. “It is our commitment to provide the industry with talented people,” says Macoska. “UMass Boston’s student body diversity is currently not reflected in the biomedical field,” she says. Collaboration with the industry will mean that our students will not only find employment in this field, but lead the way in commercial cancer research and treatment.
It is one of Macoska’s many goals to develop a program in cancer biology. “The area of human disease is the big show in town in terms of jobs,” she explains. Her goals as a teacher and a researcher are to see her students become independent scientists in their own right. “I derive a lot of satisfaction seeing them move from one milestone to the next one.”
Macoska’s enterprising spirit is one reason she has accomplished so much in the short time she’s been at UMass Boston. Since March 2013, under her leadership, the CPCT has set up an advisory board consisting of faculty members at UMass Boston and at the Dana-Farber Center, as well as representatives from the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. A seminar series informs the university community about the CPCT’s cutting-edge work. Macoska has also set up her own laboratory where she and her team study two severe disease pathobiologies, tumorigenesis and fibrosis, and how they interact with each other at the tissue level. She commends her staff and faculty for their dedication and hard work. “All this has been possible because of them,” she says.
Macoska has over twenty years of experience leading peer-reviewed research. Previously she was the associate director of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan. While she misses her Michigan team, she is excited to be at UMass Boston. The pull was just too strong. In her own words, “Boston is the place to do [cancer research.]. And the recent move of the CPCT into the new Integrated Sciences Complex has allowed us to expand and add much-needed research infrastructure to the campus, which includes the new Genomics Core which will enable UMass Boston investigators and academic and industry collaborators to carry out basic and translational genomics research."
The Genomics Gore leverages cutting-edge technologies and next-generation sequencing capabilities for research and clinical applications. Macoska and he CPCT colleagues now help investigators and clinicians analyze samples, identify genetic variants contributing to disease risk, and reveal complex mechanisms involved in human disease.
- More than $5M in grants from the National Institutes of Health
- Published 68 peer-reviewed publications; 3 book chapters
- Recognized by the Boston Business Journal as one of the 2015 Women to Watch in Science and Technology
- Served as a peer reviewer for 22 journals, most recently for Cancer Research, Cytokine, Molecular Cancer Research, Nature, and the Journal of Urology
- Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology under Matthew Meselson, PhD