Patient Care

Quick Questions with a Cancer Researcher: Circadian Rhythm and Cancer

Jul. 24, 2019

Every day at Wilmot Cancer Institute, dozens of cancer researchers are asking questions to better understand cancer in an effort to improve cancer treatments and quality of life for those living with cancer. We’re asking some of our cancer researchers simple questions to learn more about what drives them, what they’re working on and what their hopes and goals are for the future.

Brian AltmanOur circadian rhythm — a scientific way to describe our bodies’ natural 24 hour cycles over the day and night— can impact when we feel sleepy or awake. But did you know cells also have their own circadian rhythm? For cancer researchers like Brian Altman, Ph.D., a question arose: How does a cell’s circadian rhythm impact whether cancer develops or progresses? Could timing of cancer treatment impact how effective it is? Altman came to the University of Rochester in 2018 to study these questions. We asked him what he’s learned so far.

What research are you working on right now?

We are working on the idea of whether disruption of the circadian clock can drive cancer development and progression. The circadian clock is your body’s natural 24-hour rhythm, and it actually occurs in just about every cell in your body. The normal function of the circadian clock is to coordinate important processes like sleep and metabolism, but cancer researchers have found that tumor cells have an altered or absent clock, which may be necessary for tumor cells to ramp up their metabolism and grow quickly. We’re looking at how this occurs, and whether it indeed is a part of cancer progression or development in lung cancer.

What’s your proudest achievement so far as a cancer researcher?

I’m very proud of bringing together researchers in fields of circadian rhythm and tumor metabolism, neither of which had thought very much about the other before we began our work. Now, these researchers have a broad appreciation of paying attention to circadian rhythms in cancer, and we’re asking whether we can leverage this knowledge to inform cancer treatments.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a researcher and how did you work to overcome it?

When I started my post-doctoral research with Dr. Chi Dang at the University of Pennsylvania, we knew we wanted to work on circadian rhythm and cancer, but we had absolutely no experience in working on circadian rhythm. It was tremendously challenging to learn an entirely new field and make new connections with circadian researchers, but we overcame this challenge by reaching out to worldwide experts on the circadian clock at the University of Pennsylvania, such as Dr. Mitchell Lazar and Dr. John Hogenesch, who we continue to collaborate with today. Asking for and receiving help in tackling this new topic was absolutely key to ensure we were using the right tools and asking the right questions, and I am grateful to those researchers and others for assisting us in getting into the field.

What would you want everyone to know about your research or cancer research in general?

Important cancer research isn’t just about screening new drugs in cells, mice, and patients, though that work is tremendously important. A lot of the most important developments in cancer research have come from asking seemingly basic questions about how biology works in normal and cancer cells. The Wilmot Cancer Institute is very supportive of this sort of research and has experts studying a very broad base of topics.

In your area of research, what keeps you going every day?

I knew from a young age I wanted to be a scientist. I have a thirst for knowledge and always want to learn more, and this is why I became a cancer researcher. Even better, being a cancer researcher gives me the wonderful opportunity to contribute to a knowledge base that we hope will one day impact the way we diagnose and treat cancer, taking circadian rhythm into account in these decisions.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

My family and I have loved Rochester in our first year here. The community has been very welcoming, and we are thrilled with our decision to come here.

To learn more about Brian and his work, visit his lab webpage. Work like Brian’s isn’t possible without support from our community. If you’d like to support cancer research happening in Rochester at Wilmot Cancer Institute, consider participating in the Wilmot Warrior Walk or giving a donation online.