Researcher Spotlight: Sami Malek, MD
University of Michigan School of Medicine
Dr. Malek, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, received a Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Collaborative Grant from the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) in 2012. In conjunction with his collaborators, Drs. Rita Shaknovich and LRF Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) member Ari Melnick of Weill-Cornell Medical College, he has spent the past two years examining the tissue of CLL patients to measure gene modifications that occur in CLL tumors due to a process called methylation. After first measuring the data using custom designed microarrays (a scientific tool that can analyze DNA samples for particular molecular patterns), the researchers analyzed the data and determined three distinct methylation patterns that indicated separate subgroups of CLL patients. Analysis of the patients associated with each subgroup determined that each had different clinical outcomes, with certain subgroups showing a faster rate of disease progression and thus requiring earlier treatment.
CLL is an indolent (slow-growing) cancer that may become more aggressive, and it can be difficult to determine at first diagnosis whether a patient will develop the more aggressive form. Dr. Malek and his collaborators hope their findings can help address this problem. “The unique signature of each subgroup may have utility as a biomarker to predict clinical outcome of CLL patients – findings that we would like to further test and validate in future studies,” Dr. Malek says. The project also uncovered common biological abnormalities in CLL tissue that may be potential targets for future novel therapies.
Dr. Malek notes that the LRF funding has allowed the research team to fund a research assistant and purchase crucial supplies for their project. He adds that this type of genetic profiling research relies heavily on non-government funding. “Given that profiling studies are critical to our understanding of CLL but also difficult to fund through the NIH, the LRF support was vital,” he says.
Dr. Malek received his MD from the University of Hamburg in Germany, followed by a postdoc experience at Johns Hopkins, before doing his residency at Baylor College of Medicine and fellowships at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University. At the University of Michigan he is involved in the care of patients with CLL and non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHL) and spends most of his time directing his research laboratory. He is drawn to lymphoma and CLL research because they are complex illnesses that require knowledge in various biological and clinical areas. His advice to new researchers is to “work in a research area that truly interests you, find like-minded researchers and helpful mentors, [and] be persistent.”
“In CLL and various NHL there has been substantial progress in understanding biological factors … that influence these diseases,” Dr. Malek says. He advises new lymphoma patients to take heart that “progress in our understanding of the biology and the treatment of these illnesses is rapid, and the future is brighter than past experiences suggest.”