Meet David Sherr, Ph.D.
Dr. Sherr is a Professor of Environmental Health and Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the BU School of Public Health, the Director of the BU Superfund Research Program, the Co-Director of the Cancer Intercept Program at the BU School of Medicine, and the Chairman of the Find The Cause Scientific Consortium and Find The Cause Board Member.
FTC: How did you become a cancer researcher?
Dr. Sherr: Like many things in life, where I ended up was a result of random collisions and subtle changes in direction driven by an over-active sense of curiosity. As a graduate student at a medical school, I had little sense of direction other than I wanted to learn about cool stuff, small stuff like how everything in the body works. One day an immunologist, Dr. Greg Siskind, came in to lecture in my Microbiology class and I was blown away. He raved for 2 hours straight on how powerful the immune system is, how it controls so much of how our body works and that, when it malfunctions, we get autoimmune disease or cancer, opposite sides of the same coin. He barely took a breath. More than at any other time in my life, the view of my future in science instantly crystalized. After the lecture, I went straight to his office and asked him if I could do my Ph.D. thesis in his lab and was fortunate enough for him to say yes. Random collision number one. That work on immune control led me towards aberrant conditions where it fails, specifically in cancer. To go deeper into how the immune system fails, Dr. Siskind connected me with one of his mentors at Harvard (a future Nobel Laureate) with whom I eventually did my postdoctoral work. Random collision number two. A few years in, I heard a seminar from an MIT professor who suggested that the effect of environmental chemicals on biologic systems was wildly understudied. At that moment I first made the connection between environmental chemicals, immune suppression, and cancer induction. Random collision number three. Long story short, once you start working on cancer, especially when you see how it works and how it could be prevented, you can’t let go. Seeing family members die of it certainly motivates.
FTC: Why prevention? Do you consider it your life’s work/passion? If so, why?
Dr. Sherr: Yes, besides the Red Sox, I would say that cancer prevention is my passion. But to be clear, my concept of the study of breast cancer prevention is, in part, to parse out the basic biology of breast cancer. How do breast and other cancers “learn” to grow so fast? Why don’t they die like normal cells? What makes them wander around the body? Why can’t the immune system kill them? Once you have the answers to those basic science questions, and you discover what environmental chemicals do to cells, you can put two and two together and figure out how chemicals drive cancer and, hopefully, how to prevent them from doing so.
FTC: What are you most known for in your field?
Dr. Sherr: I would say that, over the last 20 years, my laboratory is probably best known for demonstrating that breast cancer cells, even in the pre-cancer state, express insane levels of a protein that recognizes large classes of environmental chemicals (“the aryl hydrocarbon receptor” aka “AHR”) and that the AHR, after binding these chemicals, drives some of the aforementioned unwelcome cancer characteristics (resistance to death; a tendency to wander). That work explains in part how so many pollutants contribute to breast cancer. The kicker is that this may only be half the story. The other half is showing that the AHR also enables cancer cells to evade the immune system. We’re working on that half now.
FTC: What is the most impactful/coolest experience you’ve had in your career?
Dr. Sherr: I have been undeservedly lucky in that area. Lots of weird and wonderful things happen in the biologist’s world (no, seriously). I would have to rate a talk that I gave in Kyoto, Japan a couple of years ago higher than the immunology conference dinner on an aircraft carrier as the coolest experience, although both were memorable. The International Dioxin Conference is an environmental science meeting held every year in a different country. Having the meeting in Kyoto, home of the Kyoto Accord, was particularly special. I was lucky enough to have been asked to give the 45 minute plenary lecture to officially open the meeting and to be able to bring my son, daughter and son-in-law with me on the trip. One never knows what speaking venues are going to be like until one gets there. This one was spectacular. Since this was the meeting’s “opening night”, every one of the approximately 500 seats in this ornate, two balcony auditorium was filled with scientists from all over the world. The audience included Japanese dignitaries, the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the NIH institute that funds much of our work, and higher ups from regulatory agencies from several countries. Unbeknownst to me, my talk was preceded by welcome speeches (in Japanese) from the Mayor of Kyoto, the Governor of the Kyoto Prefecture, and the Japanese Secretary of the Interior (all of whom praised the Kyoto Protocol from which the U.S. had just withdrawn…ugh). They were followed by two actors in pretty elaborate costumes (that would put Lion King to shame) doing a traditional and extremely bombastic Japanese Lion Dance. They did it on stage about 2 feet in front of me which was wonderful and more than a little terrifying. And then I had to talk. Scary but very cool.
On rethinking this, I would have to say that seeing each of my Ph.D. students defend their respective doctoral theses has been every bit as cool.
FTC: Tell us about the Find The Cause Scientific Consortium.
Dr. Sherr: One thing that I have learned over the years is that doing science is a team sport. To do it right, you have to bring together people with complementary expertise who can share knowledge, ideas, and technologies. Team science is the best, maybe the only way to truly accelerate discovery. When Find The Cause approached me about how best to address some pretty formidable environmental issues, my suggestion was to form a consortium of leading scientists with varied areas of expertise who have demonstrated that they can work together, in this case to begin to answer three critical questions: 1) how do environmental chemicals cause cancer, 2) which of the 86,000+ chemicals in current use cause cancer, and 3) how can we prevent cancer? Consequently, I recruited Stefano Monti, a computational biologist at Boston University, Gail Sonenshein, a world-class cancer biologist from Tufts, and Charlotte Kuperwasser, an expert in breast development, from Tufts to complement my expertise in environmental toxicology, immunology, and cancer. Once the team was formed, doing the science of breast cancer prevention came fairly easily.
FTC: What do you see on the horizon regarding the consortium’s research?
Dr. Sherr: In the next few years, we expect to determine the plausibility of identifying cancers before they happen and to begin to test approaches to intercepting (preventing) cancers before they form, in some cases by boosting the immune system at a critical pre-cancer time-point. To those ends, we are currently scrutinizing the processes through which common environmental carcinogens drive cancer formation and immunosuppression in a mouse model. We have completed a couple of runs of this 30-week experiment and are now executing studies detailing what is happening at the pre-cancer and cancer stages using a suite of molecular and computational approaches. However distant our ultimate goal of insuring that no one has to come home from the doctor with a cancer diagnosis may be, every day that we work the problem in models like these brings us that much closer to our shared goal, breast cancer prevention..
We are grateful to Dr. Sherr for sharing his story with us and for his lifelong dedication to his work to end breast cancer through prevention.