Cancer Researcher: Michael Kharas (CSH ’01)

Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Photo credit: Ruben Cantu

Dr. Michael Kharas (CSH ’01) likes to take things one step at a time. As a cancer biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, he understands the value of chipping away at complicated problems bit by bit. “It’s exciting because no one has ever tested these ideas before,” he says. “We’re trying to grab hold of a little piece and make sense of it. Every day is an enormous challenge but also very rewarding.”

Under Kharas’ leadership, the researchers in his lab focus on cancers of the blood. “We study the pathways and genes that are important in regulating both normal stem cells and those that become altered in leukemia,” he explains. The lab was one of the first to identify a specific RNA binding protein that is important in the function of leukemia stem cells. “Our studies have uncovered a novel mechanism for how cancer stem cells maintain themselves, and our laboratory is searching for drugs to target this pathway,” Kharas notes.

With up to a dozen projects underway at any given moment, Kharas spends much of his time brainstorming with his lab members, analyzing data, and writing manuscripts and grant applications. Individual experiments may be completed in a few hours, but the projects themselves can take years, and tackling such complex problems requires a monumental collaborative effort. “That’s why you see 20 authors from many different universities and countries listed on any publication,” Kharas says.

His lab team has accomplished a great deal in only four years, but Kharas isn’t slowing down. “I feel fortunate to work for such an amazing research institution where some of the smartest people in the world are trying to find cures for cancer,” he says. “We work hard because we have the potential to make a difference in people’s lives.”

“When the people who train under me go on to do other things and are successful, I feel like I’ve contributed something. It’s really nice that I can help provide an environment that gives researchers room to learn and grow.”

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