Fresh Faces, New Energy: Brian Altman, Ph.D.

Sep. 30, 2020
Brian Altman, Ph.D.

An assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics, Brian Altman, Ph.D., lost his grandfather and his wife’s uncle to lung cancer.

With the sadness came curiosity: Could he use his expertise in circadian rhythms to investigate lung cancer and improve survival? Turns out, lung function is governed by wake-sleep cycles, and lung inflammation is highest at night. Many questions shape his research mission: Do people who get lung cancer have disrupted circadian rhythms? Would it be helpful to give treatments at the point in a cancer cell’s 24-hour cycle when the cells are most vulnerable to being destroyed? What about finding therapies for cancer patients that strengthen circadian rhythms and possibly extend their lives?

Circadian rhythms include any 24- hour rhythm in a biologic process that coordinates the day-night cycle. Each cell also has its own molecular clock, which is linked to cyclical regulation of gene expression.

When circadian rhythm is disrupted in humans by jet lag, late-shift work, or even by snacking after dinner, it messes up the biological clock and creates a higher risk for metabolic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer. At the University of Pennsylvania and later at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Altman studied how and why the clock gets off track in cancer.

When the Nobel Prize was awarded to circadian rhythm scientists in 2017, it stoked Altman, and he started to focus on lung cancer. At Wilmot, he’s creating new platforms to investigate how cancer relies on circadian rhythms and how to strategically treat cancers based on their clock status.

Meanwhile, Altman practices what he’s learned and has some healthy lifestyle advice to keep all of our rhythms smooth: “Eat within a 12-hour window each day, and stay on a regular sleep schedule.”