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Student Profile in Breast Cancer Brain Metastasis

Tanner Reese

Cancer Biology Graduate Program

Mentor: Ganesh Raj, M.D., Ph.D.
Undergraduate Degree: Biochemistry & Cell Biology
Undergraduate Institution: Rice University
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Awards/Fellowships: Undergraduate: Distinction in Research and Creative Work, 2020

Tanner Reese

How did you become interested in science and/or research?

I had always been interested in the sciences in middle and high school, specifically biology and chemistry, which led me to major in biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University. Most biology graduates either go into medical school or graduate school, and although I wanted to help people directly, the rigorous test-taking and studying required for an MD wasn't a good fit for me. I decided to explore the research side of things, joining the Evans lab part-time at MD Anderson Cancer Center while at Rice, and I really just fell in love with it. I realized quickly that I could still make a difference while working in research, and I never looked back!

Please describe your research.

Up to 40% of patients with advanced stage triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a deadly subtype of breast cancer, will obtain a metastasis to the brain (BrM) within five years. With a dismal median survival time of 6 months after diagnosis, very little is known about the mechanisms through which TNBC BrM occur because of the limited number of TNBC BrM models. We are working to determine molecular drivers and identify new therapeutic approaches of TNBC BrM through creation and study of new models. To this end, we have isolated multiple tagged TNBC cell lines that preferentially colonize the brain in mice via intracardiac injection, and are actively studying these models to determine what drive their brain-tropism phenotype.

Why did you choose UT Southwestern?

There were a few factors for me when choosing UTSW. First and foremost, Dallas is an incredible city to live with overall warm weather (I am a wimp in the cold) and affordable living. My parents also live here, which was very important to me. On the research side, there is a wide breadth of discovery happening in the cancer biology department. More or less, someone is an expert or has worked in in any cancer field you can think of. This was critical for me as someone who wanted to do cancer research but didn't know what branch or area to focus on. The other aspect that stood out and remains true is how easy it is to collaborate with other labs across campus. Finally, the stipend was very competitive, making UTSW the easy and obvious choice for me.

What do you think makes the Cancer Biology Program one of the best?

In your first year, our Cancer Biology Program provides coursework covering the hallmarks of cancer research, which is typical of most programs. But what stood out to me is that different faculty give talks about their field of study, allowing us the opportunity to learn from but also meet and engage with them as an expert and a colleague. Forming these connections right from the beginning highlights the main advantage of this program in my eyes: Collaboration. I joined the lab of Ganesh Raj, M.D., Ph.D. for my thesis, a group that specializes in drug development in hormonally-driven cancers. But a few months in, I realized that I was more interested in the brain metastases some breast cancer patients develop. After talking with my PI, who was not an expert in this area but very supportive of the idea, we realized we needed to form collaborations quickly to make the project work. Within a few weeks, I was able to set up a collaboration with Srinivas Malladi, Ph.D. here at UTSW, a metastatic expert in the field and gain insights from other PIs in the program. By the end of the year, I was also able to set up collaborations with two other PIs across the country. These mentorships have been critical for my success so far, and are a large part of why I believe the Cancer Biology Program here is one of the best.

What do you love about the Cancer Biology Program?

Coming here, I was interested in cancer research and drug development, but had no idea what specifically I wanted to work on. When joining, I was able to explore my interests by completing rotations in labs specializing in pancreatic cancer and angiogenesis, brain metastasis and metastatic dormancy, and drug development in hormonally-driven cancers like prostate and breast. I was also able to meet with PIs who studied many hallmarks of cancer, including amino acid metabolism, genomic instability, and immune cell evasion before joining a lab. The breadth of cutting-edge research being conducted here paired with the collaborative environment made the decision to come to UTSW well worth it for me. Pursuing your PhD is a long journey with many ups and downs, so being able to wake up every morning with enthusiasm for my project and knowledge that the faculty have my back is a unique feeling and something I don't take for granted.

– Tanner Reese

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