Robert Clarke: A Scientist's Scientist
The quintessential medical research scientist collaborates with others to discover new truths, teaches upcoming generations, and deepens the scientific research, to translate it into treatments that enhance and save lives. This integration of research, education and clinical care is the official paradigm of Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).
Such a well lived life of science is reflected in the mission driven work of internationally renowned breast cancer researcher Robert Clarke, PhD, D.Sc., Dean for Research at GUMC.
Clarke studies how hormones, growth factors, cells and molecules affect breast cancer, and how breast cancers become resistant to hormonal and chemical therapies. A series of hormone resistant breast cancer models Clarke developed are widely used in breast cancer research.
About 276,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society, leading to a breast cancer death on average every 13 minutes. Discovery of the precise reason for the death – or survival – of breast cancer cells will forge the ultimate weapon in the war against breast cancer, Clarke says.
“I think of them as all the different parts of the whole, trying to understand the biology of breast cancer, predict how patients will do and find new treatments,” Clarke says with evident enthusiasm.
“Whether a breast cancer cell lives or dies, the pieces in the puzzle that determine these outcomes may be the same but how they fit together may be different. But there are common pieces in all of this.”
Clarke’s quest for the cellular or molecular mechanism that lets diseased breast cancer cells thrive has propelled him through ever deeper layers of research: How do breast cancer cells grow resistant to chemo and endocrine therapies? Precisely what is it about hormones and growth factors that helps breast cancer cells to multiply? To thrive? To die? What comprises cellular, molecular and pharmacological resistance? What are the synergistic effects of endocrine and chemo therapies? Are there other interactions? How does obesity play into breast cancer and responsiveness to treatment?
“Bob’s more than two decades of scientific work here models this integration of research, education and clinical care, which is the foundation of GUMC’s strategic plan, driving academic, scientific and clinical care quality with a reliable, scalable engine,” said Howard J. Federoff, MD, PhD, executive vice president for health sciences.
“This tri-part approach, built on the strength of our research platform, will propel us strategically and positively into a future of growth in our education programs, align us more closely with clinical care opportunities and enhance our reputation in targeted research via more agile, focused, ensemble science that aligns with the funding environment,” Federoff said.
A scientist’s scientist, Clarke also is co-director of the Breast Cancer Program at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member of the Georgetown University Faculty Senate. His collaborative research style has helped unify cancer research at the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO) and Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and extends to a cohesive body of work that is internationally renowned. For example, Clarke, who is a professor in Lombardi’s Department of Oncology and the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, leads:
- Several multinational molecular medicine studies in breast cancer, in collaboration with colleagues at Lombardi, Virginia Tech and the University of Edinburgh.
- In Silico Research Center of Excellence funded by the National Cancer Institute.
- The caBIG team at the Lombardi, which applies genomic and novel bioinformatic methods to data from ongoing translational studies in both humans and experimental models.
In other research, Clarke and his colleagues have identified a new, integrated molecular signaling network that incorporates cell stress signaling, protein misfolding, and communication among the endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria and nucleus of breast cancer cells. Ultimately, this network determines if a breast cancer cell will grow, change or die in response to hormone or chemical therapy, breathing new hope into clinical care.
In an interview, Clarke says he can not pinpoint an event growing up in Ireland which sparked his life-long interest in cancer, just that he always wanted to research cancer.
“I certainly loved biology and I had a great biology teacher in high school. There are so many interesting questions that nobody understands and the biology of cancer is amazing. I didn’t care where I got in, I just wanted in.”
Clarke studied biological sciences at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown in Northern Ireland, then went onto The Queen's University of Belfast, for his Masters’ and PhD degrees. He did his postdoctoral fellowship in breast cancer at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, then came to Georgetown in 1988.
Along the way, Clarke met and married a breast cancer research scientist from Finland, Georgetown professor of oncology Leena A. Hilakivi-Clarke. The most international aspect of their courtship, Clarke jokes, is that they met at an Irish pub in Bethesda.
The couple have three children and together share Clarke Labs at Georgetown where Hilakivi-Clarke’s laboratory studies the estrogen altering effects of food and alcohol consumption during puberty, pregnancy, menarche and even in utero to determine the effect on risk of developing breast cancer. Among Hilakivi-Clarke’s findings is that early pregnancy or early exposure to pregnancy-mimicking estrogen levels reduces the risk of breast cancer.
Eleven years after joining Georgetown, Clarke earned the UK’s prestigious academic distinction Doctor of Science, a degree higher than a PhD that is awarded for a substantial body of published academic work.
That honor catapulted Clarke into the top five per cent of scientists in the United Kingdom, according to V. Craig Jordan, director of scientific research at Lombardi and the internationally recognized “father of tamoxifen,” the leading anti-estrogen breast cancer treatment drug.
“We are very fortunate to have him as leader of the breast cancer program at Lombardi and in a leadership role at the Medical Center,” said Jordan, who has been a friend and collaborator of Clarke for years. Jordan said that Clarke was a central reason he came to Georgetown in 2009.
“His initiative in multiple areas really provides the glue that holds our medical center together,” Jordan said.
Clarke has served as chair of an NIH peer-review study, is an editor of several respected cancer journals and serves on the editorial boards of over a dozen international peer review journals. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and a Fellow of the Society of Biology in the U.K.
Clarke is regularly invited to speak about his research at prestigious international and national meetings. He has published over 180 peer reviewed articles, dating to 1981, in respected journals.
Despite many successes, advanced breast cancer remains incurable and will continue to be until scientists find the switch that can turn breast cancer cell survival off and cell death on. “It’s much more important to get the right answer than to get the credit,” Clarke says.
Click here to read more about research that Clarke and others are doing at GUMC on drug resistant cancer.
By Victoria Churchville, GUMC Communications