BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

The Initiation/Transformation Phase

Upon graduating from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Yaounde, Cameroon, I was recruited as a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of orthopedics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. My goal was to train as an orthopedic cancer surgeon and scientist and ultimately return to Africa to adapt and implement the skills I had acquired. Most of the commonly occurring cancers, notably breast, prostate, and lung cancer, spread (metastasize) to bone; I was set to the task of studying the role of a transcription factor (gene-expression regulator), NF B (nuclear factor kappa B), in cancer metastasis.

Coming from a background that typically would not be considered for orthopedic residency training in the United States, I was initially driven to excel in my research project by the desire to overcome this shortcoming. After working around the clock for a little over a year, I published my first paper, reporting the pivotal role of NF B in cancer metastasis.

I was subsequently set to the task of characterizing the ?genome-wide? profile of NF B-regulated genes and to extract clinically relevant data that could potentially bear on optimal cancer prevention and treatment. The technology for genome-wide profiling using microarrays was newly available, and with it came tremendous excitement, parallel to the mapping of the human genome. A microarray core research facility was set up at the University of Rochester, and a flurry of research projects kept the hardware churning out huge datasets. The software components, however, including the researchers and their computer data-mining tools, lagged in proficiency. I recall numerous brainstorming/data- analysis sessions that generated more questions than answers. I found myself inexperienced and trying to make sense out of a dataset composed of 19,000 genes.

Concurrently, to gear up for residency training, I went on to do a 1-month subinternship in orthopedic surgery. Bewildered and consumed as I was by my ongoing research project, my clinical orthopedics work was a hard fit. Consequently, I fell behind on my residency application; instead I sought a 3-year fellowship sponsored by the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, and carried on with my research project as a Wilmot Cancer Research Fellow.

The Growth Phase

Extracting clinically relevant information pertinent to a complex disease process, drawing from a data set of 19,000 genes, required a creative rather than systematic research approach. The challenge was not to identify another ?metastasis-relevant? gene but to connect and articulate seemingly disparate genes, gene clusters, and cellular processes that bear on cancer metastasis. I did this, but in making connections that are, a priori, overlooked by the systematic approach, I disregarded established paradigms and suffered for it through the peer-review process.

To avoid a barren expanse, I developed side projects and brought along willing medical students and medical residents. After more than 2 years of labored gestation, I finally delivered experimental data and a proof of principle that, I believe, contributes significantly to optimizing cancer preventive and therapeutic interventions. A conceptual review article is currently in press, and some very compelling research directions are being pursued.

Valentine B. Andela

Professional Affiliations and Activities

  • Active member of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)

  • Member of the Association of UICC Fellows (AUF) and Reviewer for UICC-ICRETT Proposals on cancer information and education

  • Biovision.Nxt Fellow

  • Founding member of Cancer-Africa (see description below)

Honors and Awards

  • AACR-AFLAC Scholar in Training Award, 2001

  • International Union for the Fight Against Cancer (UICC), International Cancer Technology Transfer (ICRETT) Award, 2003

  • Biographee - Marquis Who?s Who in America, 58th Edition, 2004

The Dissemination Phase

During my research in Rochester, I developed relationships with oncologists in Africa, primarily by participating actively in the inaugural Euro-African Cancer Congress in March 2001, where I gave lectures and participated in panel discussions. I was subsequently invited to become a member of the international organizing committee of the second convening of this congress in March 2003. My involvement inspired and motivated me to found and promote Cancer-Africa, a networked information system and organizational tool for cancer patients and practitioners in sub-Saharan Africa http://www.cancer-africa.org, a "Web-based interactive platform designed to enhance South-South dynamics and promote North-South cross-collaboration," as it was described in a UIC-ICRETT fellowship application.

With funding from the National Cancer Institute (USA); logistics and technical support from George F. Tuma, a dynamic player in information and communications technology in Africa; and the wisdom an experience of Professor Anderson S. Doh, the permanent secretary of the National Cancer Control Program (Cameroon), we have made a good start on implementing our vision. I intend to play a consultative role in this fledgling network.

In discussing my career, I have recapitulated the major phases of cancer progression to illustrate how challenges have created opportunities for me. These challenges were painful and made me vulnerable, but they also propelled me forward. Vulnerability is an aspect of progress, whose inner workings entail constant strife and dynamism. The obstacles I faced tested and built my character. I have professors Randy N. Rosier, Joseph D. Rosenblatt, and Victor A. Ngu to thank for inspiring me with their boundless enthusiasm for science and scholarship and their selfless devotion to improving the human condition. I remain committed to a career in translational cancer research and to alleviating the global cancer burden.