Oncologist David Solit, 41, has some close professional role models: His father was a surgeon and his grandfather a family practitioner. Like many doctors who pursue oncology, he became interested in the disease after a relative died from breast cancer. But it was a laboratory rotation during his oncology fellowship that sealed his interest in cancer research.
"My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good," Solit says. "I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic."
Now, Solit holds the Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and heads his own laboratory  in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center  in New York City. His lab studies a particular signaling pathway, the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway, which regulates cell growth and survival in several cancers. "We try to identify the underlying genetic basis of different tumor types and then develop novel therapies that will exploit the specific mutations that drive tumorigenesis or cancer progression," he says. Solit is the author of an upcoming Perspective in Science Signaling  on MEK resistance, which will be published on 29 March.
Special Feature: Cancer Crusade at 40
This week, Science and its sister publications take a look at where cancer research stands 40 years after the signing of the National Cancer Act. This article is one of two in Science Careers on the topic; see also "Conducting Cancer Clinical Trials ." And for more on molecularly targeted cancer drugs, see the news story "Combining Targeted Drugs to Stop Resistant Tumors " (free full text with registration) in this week's issue of Science.
See the list of cancer-related articles in all the Science publications at www.sciencemag.org/special/cancer2011/ .
Solit spoke with Science Careers earlier this month about his research and his career path. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A full transcript of the conversation  is available on CTSciNet.
And then the ultimate goal, as you mentioned, was to try to ultimately bring this into the clinic. I've run certain clinical trials but mostly at this point partner with some of my clinical colleagues to test the hypotheses generated in the lab in the clinic, in actual patients, and then actually try to analyze tumors from those patients to see whether the patterns that we identified in the laboratory in fact hold true in patients.
So I'm very focused on trying to figure out which of the mutations ... are in the patients whose cancers come back after they get their surgery or initial treatment with radiation, for example, because those are the ones that we are in greatest need for developing new therapies for.
In the ... fellowship program in oncology that I did, which was at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, after your first year you have a choice to spend the next 2 years doing clinical research, participating in clinical trials or other clinical aspects of research, or you can go into the laboratory. And at that point I chose to go into the laboratory.
That could have just been for 2 years, but when I went into the laboratory, I really enjoyed the science. My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good. I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic. So I stayed not just in the lab for those 2 years but essentially did a postdoctoral fellowship beyond that for another several years even though I had finished my clinical training.
In terms of the science side, I think it's an exciting time to be in cancer research. ... The projects that are ongoing, like the Human Cancer Genome Project, [have] really opened up a lot of possibilities to understand the molecular basis of cancer. Right now, we've got the tumor Cancer Genome Atlas that we're part of here at Sloan-Kettering. We are contributing samples actively to this project. This is a project to repeat the Human Genome Project thousands of times using tumor samples instead of normal DNA and really identify what is the full complement of mutational changes or epigenetic changes that actually cause the cancers to develop and progress. ...
So, when these projects are being completed, it really leaves us with just a list of mutational changes that are found in the tumors, but it doesn't really inform us as to which of those are most important or how they cooperate together. So there's a huge amount of opportunity to try to sort through those questions in the lab. And what's exciting to me is that you can directly potentially use that information to impact and improve the care of patients with cancer.
And there are definitely disappointments that come up in this career path. There's always going to be grants that you don't get and papers that get rejected. Without question, I would say even those who go on to win the Nobel Prize or make huge advances had grants that were rejected and papers that were rejected. But, if you're persistent and you're committed, it's not a guarantee, but there's a good chance that you could achieve what you're interested in or what your goals are.
-Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and Laboratory Head, Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases, New York
-Assistant Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York,
-Assistant Attending Physician, Human Oncology & Pathogenesis Program (HOPP) and Gastrointestinal Oncology Service, Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases
-B.A., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1991
-M.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1995
-Intern in Internal Medicine, Barnes Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri
-Resident in Internal Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri
-Fellow in Medical Oncology and Hematology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York
Kate Travis is the editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network.