Alum finds key to blood cancers

Researcher Daniel Starczynowski

The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital lab where Fairleigh Dickinson University alumnus Daniel Starczynowski, BS’00 (Metro), studies blood cancers is named for him. He’s also a professor in the University of Cincinnati Department of Pediatrics. (Photo: Aaron M. Conway)
By Tom Nugent

The dramatic breakthrough happened at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in a lab run by Daniel Starczynowski, BS’00 (Metro), when he and his team of researchers got their first in-depth look at the data pouring out of a specialized analytical instrument.

Known as a “mass spectrometer,” the device helps pinpoint and accurately quantitate molecules found in living cells. The “Spec” had been searching for a “rogue protein” that can trigger abnormal blood cell growth.

The primary goal of the study, which would later be published in the journal “Nature Immunology,” was to determine whether or not a key protein was appearing too often (or “overexpressing”) in blood-forming stem cells racing through the bloodstream of mice that had been genetically engineered with a precursor form (known as MDS or myelodysplastic syndrome) of potentially lethal cancers like leukemia — sometimes called blood cancers. As it turned out, the protein TRAF6 was working to cause these blood cancers.

Describing the findings, the FDU biology grad from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, explained, “Based on our [discovery], a number of therapeutic approaches can be tested and directed against TRAF6 and other related proteins responsible for MDS, a blood disease we still know little about and for which we have few effective treatments.”

What the Starczynowski research team had discovered, in short, was that if too much TRAF6 shows up in blood-forming stem cells, the risk for MDS (and later fatal cancers) increases dramatically.

For Starczynowski, who had “fallen in love” with biochemical research while volunteering in Professor of Chemistry Mihaela Leonida’s lab back in the late 1990s, the breakthrough on understanding MDS was a compelling example of how “good mentoring in science” can eventually lead to “improved patient care in hospitals.”

“Prof. Leonida believed in me, and she was constantly encouraging me to expand my knowledge of both chemistry and biology,” he says. “These days, when I’m mentoring my own grad students in the lab, I try to keep her example in mind.”

“Good mentoring in science can eventually lead to improved patient care in hospitals.” — Daniel Starczynowski, BS’00 (Metro)

The father of two young boys (his wife, Anna, is a school intervention specialist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital), Starczynowski says he’s a “realistic optimist,” when it comes to thinking about the ongoing battle against cancer in both kids and adults.

“Cancer research is very demanding work,” he points out, “and it isn’t always easy to keep your focus on the broad picture. These days, the explosion of knowledge — along with the rapid growth of both computer technology and the internet — threatens to swamp researchers with ever-expanding information related to the human genome and genetic factors that so often contribute to cancer.”

He says he’s “inspired almost every day” by the courage of patients who fight valiantly against the ravages of the disease. Remarkably enough, one of those inspirations was former FDU President J. Michael Adams, who died in 2012 of acute myeloid leukemia after developing MDS.

“He was an inspiration and a wonderful mentor to me,” says the tireless researcher, who got to know Adams well while helping to launch FDU’s campus in his native Vancouver. “I was very grateful to know him,” says the scientist, “and I often reflect on how strong his leadership was.”

Then, in a voice full of both sorrow and determination: “The unfortunate thing in his case was that in another 10 years or so, we’ll probably be able to treat the leukemia he died of. I’m sorry he didn’t get to benefit from our research. But in many ways, the work I’m doing now each day in the lab is dedicated to his memory.”

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 edition of FDU Magazine.