Dr. Erica Golemis: New Chair, New Connections, New Possibilities
“For most of human history, cancer was a terrifying disease of unknown origin. As molecular technologies rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s, there was an extraordinary burst of discovery about the role of genetic changes in cancer cells, and studying cancer-associated genes in cancer cells drove the focus of the field. This enormous focus on the genetically distinct cancer cell isolated cancer research from much other ongoing biological discovery,” she says.
“Thirty years on, we recognize that cancer is much more complex, because a tumor exists in the context of the rest of the human body,” she continues. “To really understand how cancers form and how they can be controlled, cancer researchers need access to expertise in immunology, microbiology, metabolism, pharmacology, and data science, among other disciplines. And to ensure advances in cancer prevention and treatment actually make it out to benefit the general population, cancer researchers depend on close relations with clinical trialists, and with programs in public health and community outreach. We need to form robust connections to specialists in these areas, and Temple is a goldmine of opportunity for doing so.”
A national leader in translational research, Dr. Golemis joined Fox Chase Cancer Center in 1993 after training at MIT and Harvard Medical School. At Fox Chase, she quickly established herself as a creative and prolific scientist. Today, she holds the William Wikoff Smith Chair in Cancer Research at Fox Chase and serves as the Associate Director for Systemwide Integration. Dr. Golemis’s expansive sweep of vision is just one reason she’s also thriving in her new leadership role as Chair of the Department of Cancer and Cellular Biology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
“Having a role at the medical school provides a fantastic opportunity to help build valuable collaborations,” Dr. Golemis says. “Since Fox Chase first became part of the Temple Health system nearly a decade ago, we’ve gradually been building bridges between cancer experts at Katz’s Fels Cancer Institute for Personalized Medicine and at Fox Chase, and we are beginning to reach out to researchers in other disciplines. My goal is to foster those connections and take them to a higher level.”
By seeking to build multidisciplinary connections, Dr. Golemis echoes the goals of national research leadership. In 2011, the National Cancer Institute established the Provocative Questions Initiative, calling for applications to address underexplored topics in cancer -- many of which require cross-disciplinary approaches. In 2016, the National Science Foundation named Convergence Research one of its top areas for investment, defining it as ‘a means of solving vexing research problems, in particular, complex problems focusing on societal needs. It entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation.’
“Many researchers in the Department of Cancer and Cellular Biology already take part in integrative research, yielding some really high-impact studies – and there is so much potential for more. As a new Chair, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to hire new faculty, to expand some priority areas,” she says. “I also have the ability to distribute some pilot funding, which I hope will spur collaborative, translational studies.”
As another important goal, Dr. Golemis plans to link the Department of Cancer and Cellular Biology, a basic science department, to another important realm – the clinical departments at Temple Health.
“Greater clinical integration between Temple and Fox Chase is a Health System priority that will not only enable more patients who have their cancer care at Temple enroll in clinical trials, which provide early access to promising treatments, but is something that will also advance our overall translational work in cancer for researchers in the department, offering insight into how well new therapeutic approaches work in more diverse populations,” she says.
Dr. Golemis’s predilection for bridge-building shows up in her personal research interests as well. In general, her investigations focus on understanding the factors contributing to aggressive tumor growth and on the evaluation of protein-targeted drugs. The projects she’s most excited about at present all involve collaboration with clinical research partners at other leading academic medical centers and with Temple and Fox Chase partners.
Dr. Golemis identifies two areas of research as her career’s top achievements (so far). The first came when she was still a post-doctoral fellow. With colleagues, she developed a technology called a yeast two-hybrid system that enabled the study of protein-protein interactions and made it easier to take individual oncogenes and put them into signaling networks. She spent over a decade working on these technologies, laying the foundation for protein interaction networks that other researchers have taken forward in a variety of disciplines.
The second, more recent, achievement involved Aurora-A kinase. “We had some very unexpected findings when studying Aurora-A,” Dr. Golemis recalls. Previously, it was thought the protein only regulated mitosis. Dr. Golemis and her colleagues found that it also regulated cellular organelles called cilia, which are involved in communication between cells, play roles in development and homeostasis of organs, and are involved in cancer signaling. This work was innovative, and it impacted many different fields. In 2019, Dr. Golemis was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in acknowledgment of its impact.
Looking back, Dr. Golemis believes her early exposure to literature—she graduated from Bryn Mawr College as a double major in English and biology—has served her well in her highly successful career in science. “I didn’t think studying English would be as pertinent as it turned out to be,” she says. “However, from intensively studying literature, you learn how to think about complex problems from multiple perspectives in a way you don’t learn from a typical science education, helping identify the most significant elements of your research. And there was great value in doing enormous amounts of writing and learning how to communicate effectively. I’ve taught scientific writing for nearly two decades, and plan to contribute teaching in this area at Katz.”
Before college, Golemis had nurtured a deep affection for science fiction.
“I think a lot of people who went into science probably were inspired by a love of science fiction – particularly the optimistic science fiction of the mid-20th century,” she says. “It’s about imagining possible futures, worlds that could be, and realizing that your own actions and ingenuity can help those futures emerge.”
Looking ahead in the real world, Dr. Golemis is very optimistic about the future at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. “This is a really exciting time to build a department focused on cancer. Recent decades have seen many breakthroughs in our understanding of this awful disease – and we are now benefiting from powerful new treatments that are saving lives,” she says. “Fox Chase is entering a period of very active hiring and growth, with a major investment from Temple. This will synergize with the research strength we are developing in the department,” she says.
“At Temple, I’ve been struck by the resources and capabilities in the other medical school departments and in other Temple schools and colleges. I’ve had very productive conversations with other Department Chairs and Deans about ways to work together,” she says. “I am absolutely confident that we will have a major impact in the coming decade.”