Wistar Recruits Noted Cancer Biologist, Gains New Face for Mentoring

Wistar Recruits Noted Cancer Biologist, Gains New Face for Mentoring

Maureen Murphy, Ph.D., already had a lot on her plate when she joined The Wistar Institute in December of 2011. Murphy, a noted expert on the role of the p53 gene in cancer, brought with her a full research agenda (and all of her research staff) from her laboratory at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Maureen Murphy, Ph.D.Shortly after becoming a professor at Wistar, it was announced that Murphy would be taking a much larger role in administration. First, she was named leader of the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program along with co-leader David Speicher, Ph.D. But she will also have a strategic and guiding role for both junior faculty and young researchers.

As associate director of faculty development, she will be responsible for developing programs intended to train and mentor the careers of Wistar’s junior faculty members. And, as associate director of education, she will develop programs designed to engage and better train students and postdoctoral fellows. [See "The Fine Young Fellows."]

“I intend to create a face for Wistar’s internal mentoring and education efforts,” Murphy said. “We want to ensure that, in addition to remaining at the forefront of breakthrough medical research, Wistar also continues to excel as a place of education, preparing the next generation of scientists for the discoveries that lie ahead.”

Murphy began her career locally with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Rutgers University, followed by a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

In 1994, she began postdoctoral research at Princeton University in the laboratory of Arnold J. Levine, Ph.D., co-discoverer of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, which is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancer. She began her independent career studying p53 at Fox Chase in 1998, where she was promoted to full professor in 2011, and where she ran the Postdoctoral Training Program for seven years.

The Murphy laboratory focuses on how tumor suppressor genes, such as p53, regulate two cell death pathways, apoptosis and autophagy. Apoptosis (programmed cell death) and autophagy (literally, the cell eating itself) are what Murphy describes as the cell’s most important defense mechanisms against cancer. Murphy’s interest centers on the discovery of how tumor suppressor genes normally defend against cancer. Her research uses small molecule therapeutics designed to target the pathways of apoptosis and autophagy, in efforts to improve the treatment of cancer. Murphy has also developed an interest in how genetic variants in p53 that naturally exist in human populations affect how we combat tumor development. Her studies have relevance for understanding racial differences in cancer risk and progression, particularly in ethnic populations where these variants occur with high frequency.

Murphy’s plans for the training program are admittedly ambitious. “I have great ideas for expanding an already strong program that will enhance the scientific repertoire and skill sets of our outstanding trainees.” In particular, Murphy envisions “…giving the trainees more control of their education, by awarding them slots for Distinguished Lectures, more internal fellowship opportunities, and more opportunities to present their research to the Wistar community. “On top of this, I am designing grant writing and image preparation workshops that will enable our trainees to leave here with a unique and impressive skill set,” she said.

“Maureen brings with her a vibrant and productive laboratory program focused on mechanisms of p53-dependent cell death and the cellular stress response in cancer,” said Dario Altieri, M.D., executive vice president, chief scientific officer, and director of the Institute’s Cancer Center. “Maureen will also play a pivotal role in strengthening our mentoring and career development initiatives for junior faculty and trainees, thereby positioning The Wistar Institute for even greater success during the current institutional expansion.”