2015 Scholar Retreat – Summary

Senior Investigators
Kimryn Rathmell, MD, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
Navdeep Chandel, Ph.D., Northwestern University
Jeff Rathmell, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
Chi Van Dang, MD, Ph.D., Abramson Cancer Center
Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., Texas A&M Institute

2011 Forbeck Scholars
Grant Challen, Ph.D., Washington University in St. Louis
Gary Hon, Ph.D., University of California San Diego
Alvaro Rada-Iglesias, Ph.D., University of Cologne
Chris Vakoc, MD, Ph.D., Cold Spring Habor

2012 Forbeck Scholars
Mohit Jain, MD, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School
Julie Aurore-Losman, MD, Ph.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Research Institute
Kathryn E. Wellen, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Hao Zhu, MD, Children’s Hospital of Boston

2013 Forbeck Scholars
Maria-Francis Arteaga, Ph.D., University of Munster, Germany
Cory Johannessen, Ph.D., Broad Institute
Kristopher Sarosiek, Ph.D., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Kris Cameron Wood, Ph.D., Duke University

2014 Forbeck Scholars
Rosandra Kaplan, MD, National Institute of Health
Chad Pecot, MD, University of North Carolina
Mario Shields, Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Louise van der Weyden, Ph.D., Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute


October 1, 2015 brought another phenomenal group of energetic and accomplished young investigators together at the Geneva National Golf Course for the 2015 Forbeck Scholar Retreat. It was my privilege to chair this year’s retreat, an annual pilgrimage that marked the first 5 years of my own faculty career path, and which I have to credit with shaping my career as a physician scientist. I was incredibly honored to chair this meeting.

The Forbeck Foundation has integrated several key experiences into this exciting event. Together have the effect of profoundly shaping the lives and careers of young scientists at this critical juncture as they develop an independent research program which will sustain their careers for the next 30+ years. These elements are: 1) a structured venue for discussing new research in a way that allows for extended open discussion, 2) an atmosphere that supports candor, with a relaxed environment so that scholars and mentors can achieve an intense scientific discussion that is both challenging and immensely fun, and 3) a sequestered environment in which scholars and mentors are given the time to get to know each other. The setting allows all to be comfortable with being open and critical, and establish relationships that allow for more than superficial conversations about career and scientific issues. The timing for such an event, the venue, and the organization are essential, and not trivial, to finesse. Lauren and Jamie did a marvelous job again scoring a fantastic meeting.

The 2015 scholars came from a fairly broad range of topic areas in cancer biology: Drug Resistance Mechanisms, Tumor Metabolism, Epigenetics, and Invasion/Metastasis. Mentors included former Forbeck Forum attendees Dr. Chi Dang, University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Jeff Rathmell, Vanderbilt University, as well as Dr. Cheryl Walker, Texas A&M, and Dr. Nav Chandel, Northwestern University. We all learned new details and ways to think about how these processes affect cancer. The event was kicked off by an inspiring keynote by Dr. Chi Dang, Director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Dang spoke to the scholars with a candid and poignant style about the privilege of this career, as well as the responsibilities associated with it, from his perspective as a physician-scientist, chemist, cancer biologist, and leader in the academic medicine community. His talk covered a broad range of issues that are encountered, or will be encountered, by the scholars in public perceptions of science, value-based decision-making, publication biases and credit issued for publication, issues involved in large team projects. Importantly, he reminded us all that facts have half- lives, and our search for “truth” is a never-ending quest.

In our clubhouse venue, with gorgeous views of the lake, we closed the curtains and dove into the science. The opening session on cancer epigenetics set the stage with energized talks by Grant Challen on epigenetic modifier mutations that shed light on emerging resistance and aging; Alvaro Rado-Iglesias, who shared a novel finding from a non-cancer syndrome Bronchio-oculofacial syndrome (BOFS) illustrated the way positional enhancer regions in the genome can affect gene expression; Chris Vakoc had a first slide that led to a heated discussion of what constitutes an oncogene. Having resolved that issue, his discussion of screening strategies to determine the key functional domains of epigenetic regulators led us to consider new ways to nominate the active portions of these enigmatic proteins; Julie Losman described the first Forbeck funded collaborative grant between herself and scholar Cory Johannessen to use an unbiased saturation mutagenesis technique to anticipate mutations in genes that will be likely to produce resistance. I finished the morning session with one more epigenetics talk discussing our newest foray into how the disruption of histone methylation may contribute to tumorigenesis. The afternoon session turned to metabolism. Led by Katy Wellen, this talk transitioned us from epigenetics with links from metabolism to histone regulation and DNA repair. Cory Johannessen helped us sort out the signal from the weeds with saturation mutagenesis strategies to reveal key protein domains that would be likely to be most sensitive for drug targeting. Kris Sarosiek explored the issue of “priming”, and how the potential for proliferation was a key feature in the sensitivity of cells to signals inducing cell death. Mentor Nav Chandel championed the mitochondria as the center of the known universe. With these ideas all bouncing around our heads we retired to the bar and dinner where we knew already the weekend would be a success based on the chatter amongst the scholars and the mentors about the new ideas that had been explored in the conference.

Day two brought a group energized to push the envelope even further. We started off with an ACC Challenge: Kris Wood (Duke) examined ways of rapidly screening for potential therapeutic options for melanoma and Chad Pecot (UNC) showed us that there are many ways to imagine [and track] how a cancer cell makes it’s way from the primary tumor to sites of metastatic growth. Mentor Cheryl Walker challenged my histone-centric view of the world with ideas that epigenetic modifiers might have more to do than their day job. The afternoon brought Mario Shields sharing his fascinating ways of “seeing” as well as manipulating the environment of the cancer cell. Mentor, Jeff Rathmell, reinforcing our impression that metabolism is really complicated. Louise van der Weyden showed us that accidents of nature can in fact be used to reveal novel facets of cancer; and finally Mentor Chi Dang brought us full circle with exciting new things that Myc continues to reveal about the underpinnings of cancer.

Our final afternoon of scientific sessions continued around a cozy fireplace with an informal (and spirited) discussion starting on the topic of navigating team science, but also including lab management, grantsmanship, and topic prioritization. From there we proceeded to the Blue Jean Ball, and enjoyed the wine tasting. This lovely event was a nice chance for us all to finalize those connections, meet the generous supporters of this important organization, and give us all a chance to remember again why we do thisbecause individuals and families continue to be profoundly affected by this disease.

W. Kimryn (Kim) Rathmell, MD PhD Vanderbilt University