Big Ideas

Kris Wood, Ph.D.

Many of our funded researchers are medical doctors. It’s a natural fit for studying how to stop a disease in the human body. Think of the human body like a machine. If a machine were to break down, you would call in the person who knows the machine best. And if the problem were to lie deep in the nuts and bolts of the machine, bringing in an expert to look at why the smallest parts aren’t behaving as expected could be a successful approach. Meet Kris Wood, Ph.D.

Wood, a 2013 V Scholar from Duke Cancer Institute, came to cancer research with a degree in chemical engineering. He’s a nuts and bolts guy, looking at how cancer cells work, how they become resistant and how that resistance can be overcome.

“Drug resistance is arguably the biggest problem we have in cancer. If we had cancer drugs that could effectively eradicate all of the cancer cells in a person’s body without killing the patient, then we wouldn’t have a problem with cancer. It’s laughably simple to say that, but it really is true. The reason we can’t do that is largely due to drug resistance. That’s what we study. We want to understand: what are the things that tumors do to become resistant to drugs, and how can we leverage that information to design new therapies that are much more robust and can durably suppress or eradicate tumor cells,” said Wood.

Wood has a personal investment in stopping cancer. While working in his lab, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.

In a healthy person without cancer, cell function is a very controlled thing. Cells receive signals to grow, to produce something or to die. The cells respond, and once they do their assignment, they stop responding. Cancer develops when a cell accidentally develops a mutation in a gene that encodes the cell’s assignment. A mutation forms, and the cell starts receiving constant signals to grow and survive even when it shouldn’t. When scientists discovered this phenomenon, they started working on ways to block that signal with a drug. Blocking the signal stops tumor growth. Different tumors require different drugs to stop them. This is called targeted therapy, and it has revolutionized cancer therapy in the last 20 years.

The good news is there are targeted therapies, and they have shown tremendous promise in treating many cancers. The not-so-good news is resistant disease can come back, and when it does, it is very difficult to stop.

“Resistance takes two forms. The first is when you initially respond, and then over time, you stop responding. That’s called acquired resistance. We’ve all known people who had cancer, took a drug, seemed to do well for a while and then they stopped doing well. Another form is called primary resistance, where in principle the patient should have responded, but in practice they didn’t. We’re interested in resistance both in its primary form and its acquired form. We study this problem and try to use that to make better therapies,” Wood explained.

Wood has a personal investment in stopping cancer. While working in his lab, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare blood cancer.

“My experience made me think about outreach and what I can do to help people going through the disease. It made me think more broadly about what impact really means. I went into science because I wanted to have an impact in an area I cared about scientifically, but you realize after being a patient, that impact can be defined more broadly than that. It’s about your contribution to science, but it’s also about what you can do to improve the lives of people around you,” he explained.

While the outcome of Wood’s research has potential to help in several types of cancer, the V Foundation grant is specifically supporting his research into breast cancer. That work led to the discovery of a new drug therapy that will soon enter clinical trials. Donations from supporters like you have made this happen. The impact of your donation can be seen in new treatments being developed. The science simply couldn’t happen without you.

“Science really is a huge team effort. It’s something that takes lots of people to do, and we work very closely with each other. My colleagues are not just at Duke. They’re in Boston, at Duke, in Italy. They’re in Houston. They’re in Philly. They’re all over. We work together very, very well to try and advance the science of cancer research. We obviously couldn’t do what we do without funding. The V Scholar Grant was the first grant I got as a professor,” Wood said.

Wood came to the field of cancer research in an unexpected, but uniquely valuable, way. By also being a cancer patient while studying the disease, he again brought an unexpected and uniquely valuable perspective. The V Foundation funds cutting-edge research that constantly reshapes the way we see and stop cancer. Thank you for supporting researchers like Wood. As a team, we will achieve victory over cancer.