Dan Theodorescu, Meds'86
Dan Theodorescu, Meds’86, a cancer researcher and urologic surgeon, took on a new role last summer as the director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC). Previously, Dan was the director of the Mellon Urologic Cancer Insitute at the University of Virginia. A prostate and bladder cancer expert, Dan’s research has focused on looking for biomarkers that can lead to customized, targeted treatments for his patients. Among his breakthroughs is his identification of a new metastasis suppressor gene for human cancer (RhoGD12), which can indicate survival prognosis in bladder cancer and is now being developed into a therapy to prevent metastasis.
Dan says that he wanted to do cancer research since he was 10 years old. His choice of specialization was influenced by several key people during his training. “One of the people I was really impressed with was a urologist, Alvaro Morales, who was chairman of the department when I was a student. He was very influential.” Another inspiring teacher for Dan was nephrologist Peter Morrin, whose lectures, Dan says, were “compelling”. After completing his degree in Medicine at Queen’s, Dan trained in urologic oncology at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He then received his PhD in molecular and cell biology from U of T under the mentorship of cancer biologist Dr. Robert Kerbel, PhD’72.
Dan welcomed the chance to move to UCCC, a consortium of three state universities and five institutions. “[At UCCC], we have the opportunity to alter the cancer care that is in the state. We have a lot of outreach, to areas that don’t have access to oncology.” He focuses his clinical practice to bladder cancer at the University of Colorado Hospital. Working at the hub of cancer research in Colorado has enabled him to expand his own research, and to collaborate with other researchers on multidisciplinary projects. And his work has been making headlines lately.
New research by Dan and his colleagues has implications for the way bladder cancer will be treated in the future. The team’s data, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in December, showed that a new type of cancer drug – an Andothelin-A receptor antagonist -- could block “cross-talk” between cancer cells and normal immune cells. “We discovered that these drugs block the ‘tumor host interactions’ found at sites of metastasis, which is what reduces tumor growth at these sites,” said Dan, the lead author of the study, in a statement. “However, unless the drugs are used early, they have minimal or no effect.” The drug blocked specific types of proteins associated with cancer growth, in lieu of eliminating them. “Had we known this before the trials, we wouldn’t have used them to try to reduce large, established tumors,” says Dan. “We would have used them to try to suppress the appearance of metastasis. This new information has important implications for how we test drugs for effectiveness before human use and then on how we select patients in clinical trials with these agents.”
That’s not the only breakthrough he has had. Dan and other researchers have designed the first gene test that could help predict whether patients’ bladder cancer has reached their lymph nodes. These patients are most likely to have their lives extended by pre-surgical chemotherapy. “We validated the test’s ability to predict lymph node spread of the cancer in a large sample of patients from a randomized trial,” says Dan about the study. “The predictive ability held up. If this new test is used to guide neo-adjuvant [pre-surgical] chemotherapy, we hope it will both help people with positive nodes live longer and keep people with negative nodes from being over-treated.” The study was published this month in Lancet Oncology. A clinical trial of the test is now in the works.