Big Ideas

Megan McNerney, M.D., Ph.D.

How does a kid “with a passion for science” from Woodstock, Illinois grow up to be a leading researcher in her field? A mom with a Masters in Psychology, some extraordinary science teachers and experience as a med student provided all the motivation necessary.

“As a medical student, I witnessed patients bravely fight and succumb to cancer, and the impact this had on their loved ones,” said Megan McNerney, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Chicago. “That was when I realized I wanted to be one of the people working to identify new and better treatments for cancer patients. My research is motivated both by patients and their families, as well as the intellectual puzzle of this complex disease.”

McNerney and her team are now focusing on cancers of the blood, particularly those containing myeloid cells. That includes acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome and therapy-related myeloid malignancies. Their research has shown that an important gene in chromosome 7, called CUX1, is what normally puts the brakes on cell growth. When it is gone, it can lead to cells growing uncontrollably.

“We have known for a long time that in some of these patients, the cancer cells have lost a copy of chromosome 7,” said McNerney. “Recently, my lab has helped show this result in mice. Specifically, when mice are genetically engineered to lose the CUX1 gene, they develop myeloid malignancies. We’ve also found that when CUX1 is gone, the cells have too many growth signals. We are now testing if we can inhibit those growth signals with drugs to cure the mice.” This breakthrough has big potential, because if McNerney and her team see success with the drugs on the mice, they could move on to testing these therapies in patients.

I hope that the V Foundation supporters know that supporting cancer research is one of the most important and impactful steps they can take. Their philanthropy has, and will continue to, make a significant impact on cancer patients.

It’s not her research alone that has McNerney excited about the future of the field. “Projects to understand the cancer genome have transformed our understanding of the disease,” said McNerney. “We know much more about how cells have been reprogrammed to become cancer cells. The next stage will be drug discovery. The hope is to use the information we’ve learned about the cancer genome to identify new ways to specifically target altered pathways in cancer cells.”

McNerney knows that without people supporting organizations like the V Foundation, research would not be in such a promising position. While some may be discouraged that cancer still affects so many people, and may wonder if their donation makes a difference, McNerney sees the progress made by everyday people who care.

“I think that those of us that have been touched by cancer, either personally or through loved ones, often feel a sense of hopelessness in the face of such a terrifying and devastating disease,” she said. “I hope that the V Foundation supporters know that supporting cancer research is one of the most important and impactful steps they can take. Their philanthropy has, and will continue to, make a significant impact on cancer patients.”