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Cancer research runs in Rauscher's blood

Researcher's father was first head of the National Cancer Institute

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Managing Editor

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Frank Rauscher III, right, shown with William J. Fredericks, became a researcher instead of a physician.

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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (MedPageToday)external link -- Dr. When most kids were learning to ride bikes, little Frank J. Rauscher III was learning the ins and outs of a cancer research lab.

The lab was at the National Cancer Institute and Rauscher's dad, Frank J. Rauscher Jr., was the man President Nixon designated in 1971 as the first general in the "War on Cancer."

That childhood clearly foreshadowed Rauscher's career as a cancer researcher, a professor of molecular genetics at University of Pennsylvania and deputy director of the prestigious Wistar Institute, the nation's oldest independent biological research institute. These days he is Frank J. Rauscher III, Ph.D.

When Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, which established a National Cancer Program aimed at preventing, detecting and treating cancer, he appointed Rauscher Jr. to the dual post as director of the National Cancer Institute and the first director of the National Cancer Program.

Rauscher said he has a clear memory of standing on the tarmac at Fort Detrick, Maryland, when Nixon's helicopter landed.

"Nixon handed over the keys to Fort Detrick, which had been the Army's biological warfare facility, and told my father to turn it into a cancer research facility," he said.

One of five children, Rauscher said he is the only one who was mesmerized by the world of cancer research. When he was kid, scientists from all over the world came to his house, he recalled.

"They would sit at the table and talk about their research and that was what was important -- research transcended national boundaries, politics, money all that stuff," Rauscher said. "People didn't care where you came from, just what came out of your brain. It was fascinating to me."

The cancer virus

In those days many cancer researchers thought that cancer was probably caused by a virus. His father isolated one such virus, the Rauscher virus, which induced leukemia in mice.

"Of course at the time there was very little known about genetics, so viruses were the focus of research," Rauscher said. "Now we know that actually very few cancers are caused by viruses."

But as enthused as Rauscher was by laboratory research, he originally thought that he wanted to treat cancer in humans so he planned to attend medical school after getting his undergraduate degree at Moravian, a small liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Those plans changed during his undergraduate years when a part-time job exposed him to cancer in patients rather than in test tubes.

Toxic treatments

"I worked at Yale in an outpatient chemotherapy clinic," he said. "My experience in the clinic convinced me that chemotherapy as we knew it then was barbaric. Nothing was targeted. Every patient was treated exactly the same way: just set up an IV and crank them full of the most toxic substances and hope the tumor died faster than the normal tissue."

He realized immediately that he wanted to find a way to target cancer therapy to determine which treatments would really work in individual patients. He also realized that "it is very difficult to do a controlled experiment in humans because everyone is different."

He decided to pursue a science doctorate, not a medical degree. First, however, young Rauscher worked for two years as technician in the pharmacology department at Yale, where he published six papers, a remarkable feat for a technician.

From Yale, he headed to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, where he pursued a doctorate in cancer pharmacology. As a newly minted cancer researcher he was hired as a researcher at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, then a new institute that the drug company set up as a fully funded, independent molecular biology think tank.

At the time, the study of cancer genetics was just taking off. Oncogenes, genes that trigger tumor growth, were just being identified, and Rauscher was ready to get in on the action. Cancer genetics, he said, offered the first real opportunity to develop the targeted therapies that he first thought about while working in the chemotherapy clinic at Yale.

Targeting a cancer that attacks kids

After three years at Roche, Rauscher took an offer from Wistar. Around this same time researchers at MIT described a new tumor suppressor gene: WT1. Rauscher was moving from genes that promoted cancer to genes that turned it off so he wanted to study WT1.

"I contacted the guys at MIT and asked them to send me the gene, but they refused," he said.

Undeterred, Rauscher synthesized the gene in his final weeks at the Roche Institute.

"When I arrived in Philadelphia in April 1990 I had a lab with nothing but bare walls. By June I had presented my initial findings at a symposium at Cold Spring Harbor, and I published my first WT1 paper in Science in October. So there is a good lesson here," he said. "Never be discouraged when someone refuses to give you what you ask for, and when you start your own lab arrive with some very well-defined projects."

He was interested in WT1 because of its role in the development of Wilms' tumor, which is the most common kidney tumor in children. The gene is a genetic switch that regulates the growth of kidney cells. When it mutates while the fetus is in the womb, the kidney keeps growing.

In order to study genes that so directly impact human cancers, "you need the basic lab for the research, but you also need access to the patients," he said. His lab at Wistar is ideally located for this because "it's just a short walk to Children's Hospital so I can go over there and see the patients and talk to the doctors who are treating the disease."

How about that grant?

Rauscher now balances long days in the lab with time spent teaching and his duties as editor-in-chief of Cancer Research, a journal put out by the American Association for Cancer Research.

But he says he makes time for sailing and skiing with his wife, Melissa Ludwig, and his two children. Asked about his children, he responds like a scientist, "my daughter Griffin is 9.7 and Frank J. Rauscher IV is 4.6."

He said that both children are already at home in the lab. His daughter regularly asks how he did on his last grant application.

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