A conversation with Bryan Haugen, MD

Bryan Haugen, MDBryan Haugen, MD, is an expert in advanced thyroid cancer and a translational researcher. He directs the University of Colorado Thyroid Tumor Program and is co-director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center Gene Expression Core.

C3: You’re a basic researcher and an endocrinologistwho treats cancer patients. Why is it important to be part of a comprehensive cancer center?

Haugen: To have the research colleagues, the ideas, the reagents, the resource of our Clinical Investigations Core, has been invaluable. I work with very smart basic scientists. I work with a great clinical team in the Cancer Center. We’re doing this work in a way that really connects it all together, from the bench, to the patient, to the community, and the Cancer Center is critical in that connection.

C3: What’s driving the science of thyroid cancer?

Haugen: Kinase signaling in general, and in particular, MAP kinase signaling. In the past five years, we’ve identified many of the oncogenes that drive cancer development and progression. These signals play a role in that process, and we have people here working to understand the specific mechanisms so that in the near future, we can have a drug or combination of drugs that stops cancer growth.

C3: What is challenging about your work?

Haugen: Funding is one of the biggest challenges. The last quarter-mile of bringing a new therapy to a patient—getting the clinical trial going, running all phases, getting FDA approval—that is also very challenging. Sometimes I know of something that is showing promise in the lab, and I wish I could write my patients a prescription right now. It’s important to study the benefits and risks of promising new treatments, but it’s hard to watch patients suffer when I believe we may have an effective treatment.

C3: What’s rewarding about your work?

Haugen: As a scientist, it’s rewarding to find something new like a new pathway or potential treatment in cancer biology. As a clinician, it’s very rewarding to see things work. In the Thyroid Oncology Clinic, we get people sent to us from all over the country with the worst of the worst thyroid cancers. It’s very rewarding to have something to offer them when no one else did.

C3: What makes for successful translational research?

Haugen: The most successful translational work happens when the right teams are assembled. What I like about an institution like this is that teams, not individuals, do the work—a team to take care of the patients, to teach the students, to do the research. And they all talk. There is a very collaborative spirit here.

C3: You’re co-director of CU Cancer Center’s Gene Expression Core. What is it, and why visit important?

Haugen: Ten years ago, a new technology emerged that lets you measure genomic messages in very small amounts from tumor cells or tissue. No one on this campus or at Boulder had it. I decided to go to (CU Cancer Center director) Paul Bunn. We did a member survey and agreed it would be a great resource. A donor gave money to buy the instrument—it cost $100,000. Now, it’s a fulltime core service, and we recently bought a second instrument. We’ve had about 75 investigators use it, and now there are dozens of publications and many new grants coming out of this Core.

C3: How has having an endowed chair made a difference in your work?

Haugen: Here’s the perfect example. I used some of the endowment money to hire a bright young researcher, Dr. Rebecca Schweppe. She’s doing some of the MAP kinase signaling work I mentioned. She just won the CU Cancer Center Calabresi Clinical Scholars Award, which gives her funding to do more research in an area we think is key for advanced thyroid cancer. I recently hired another bright scientist, Dr. Jena French, to study how the patient’s immune system fights cancer. Without the chair money, I couldn’t have hired either of these talented researchers.

To learn more about thyroid cancer care, visit www.uch.edu/thyroid-cancer.