Investigating the Mechanisms of Tumorigenesis
By Barbara Spector
Lucy Macdonald Anderson ’64 has been studying the mechanisms of tumorigenesis at the Laboratory of Comparative Carcinogenesis of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Frederick, Md., since 1982. Anderson, who became chief of the laboratory’s Cellular Pathogenesis Section in 1990, says she never seriously considered moving elsewhere. “It is a very stimulating environment with great resources and a lot of freedom for pursuing novel research.”
Anderson has had the opportunity to work on diverse projects. Among other studies, she has investigated tumor promotion by PCBs, the association of Helicobacter hepaticus infection with chronic hepatitis and development of liver tumors, the association of alcoholic beverages with increased risk of cancer, and oxidative DNA damage and tumors after transplacental exposure to AZT.
Anderson says it has been hard to resist an invitation to collaborate on an interesting study. “I’m a very high-energy person,” she says, “so there is always a temptation to take on something else.” These projects have enabled her to collaborate with researchers in institutions worldwide — U.S. government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency; universities in Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, among other states; and international facilities such as the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens, Greece, and the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “These collaborations have been a fun and unique part of the research experience,” Anderson says.
Recently, however, Anderson has narrowed her research focus to two areas: cellular mechanisms in the development of lung adenocarcinomas and preconceptional carcinogenesis. Adenocarcinomas, the most common form of lung cancer in humans, are well modeled by the comparable neoplasm in mice, and the K-ras gene is often mutated in lung adenocarcinomas in both species, according to Anderson. She and associates have found that the K-ras protein has a tumor suppressive role in lung type 2 cells, the target tissue for adenocarcinoma development.
Anderson’s lab is also investigating the effect of preconceptional exposure of parents to carcinogens on the incidence of childhood cancers. Studies thus far have concentrated on paternal exposure. “In animal models, it is easier to design experiments to assess the role of preconceptional agents in males,” Anderson explains. “Mothers are pretty tough. They have mechanisms to protect their babies, and the placenta is a very effective detoxification organ.” Anderson intends to study maternal exposure “in due course,” she says.
Anderson says that when she began her career, exciting global epidemiological findings drew her to the field of carcinogenesis. Beyond genetics, factors related to where people live affect the incidence of different types of cancer. “Causative factors could be studied in a controlled experimental way using animals,” Anderson notes. “If these causes could be found, they could be prevented.”
Anderson, who received both the NIH Director’s Award and the NIH Merit Award in 1995, has seen changes over the years. “Twenty-one years ago, there was a lot more emphasis on animal bioassay work. These days, there is more emphasis on molecular biology.”
Anderson was an early-decision applicant to Bryn Mawr College — “one of the best decisions I ever made” — and originally intended to attend medical school. As a biology major, she pursued an honors project under the tutelage of biology professor Robert Conner and worked with him during her senior year. “I just loved every minute of it,” she recalls. “He was a wonderful teacher and mentor. I couldn’t wait every day to get in and do the experiments, and then to sit down and talk about the results. It really turned me on to doing experimental science.”
Anderson, who graduated from the College magna cum laude, says, “At Bryn Mawr, in addition to all the material I learned, I greatly improved my ability to think and to write — skills that one needs in science.”
Anderson’s Bryn Mawr experience was rewarding in other ways as well. One afternoon, while she practiced her drawing — required of biology students at the time — by sketching a Pleurobrachia (a marine organism), a biology graduate student named Robert Anderson wandered into the lab. “He pretended to want to hear about the invertebrates in the tank,” Lucy Anderson recalls. They married in 1964 and recently welcomed their first grandchild. (Robert Anderson is now a professor of biology at the University of Maryland.)
While Robert Anderson pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, Lucy Anderson attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she specialized in cell biology and development and was a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in 1968 and did a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. From 1973 to 1982 she held positions at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in Rye, N.Y.
Today, Lucy Anderson notes, NCI is looking for “extremely good, extremely motivated, very successful students who are highly driven to do science. It’s a very competitive world — a lot more so than when I started out.” Her advice to those seeking to follow in her footsteps: “First, be sure that professional science is the best choice for you. Then seek the best possible education, attentive mentors and experience in a research lab.”
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.