UK Attracts 33 New Cancer-Fighters

Led by “Shining Star” B. Mark Evers

by Alicia P. Gregory
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A “shining star,” a “top-tier director,” an “accomplished surgeon and prolific researcher.” These were some of the accolades used to describe B. Mark Evers at the April 2009 press conference announcing his appointment as the new director of the Markey Cancer Center.

But what stood out most was his modesty. “There’s been a lot of talk about me,” Evers told the audience. “And I’m very embarrassed about that, because I normally like to fly under the radar.”

It seems counter-intuitive, but could this self-depricating attitude be the secret to his success? Maybe his preference to shift the focus from himself to his laboratory full of talented colleagues (15 of whom followed Evers from the University of Texas to the University of Kentucky), as well as six other outstanding cancer investigators who have come with their own independently funded lab teams, is his most telling trait. Evers is a mentor, primarily interested in helping others in the shared quest to cure cancer.

In his new UK office, brimming with oversized orange crates—“I’m still in the process of getting settled,” Evers says by way of apology—he describes his two families, his “spicy” research, and his vision for targeting lung and colorectal cancers, the cancers that kill the most Kentuckians each year.

Let’s start at the beginning

“I was the first person in my family to go to college. My dad never went to high school, and my mom went no further than high school, but they both instilled in me a really strong work ethic,” Evers says.

But what is the connection between a strong work ethic and his choice to become a surgeon? He explains that in the small farming community in southern Tennessee where he grew up, there was “beloved and revered” Dr. Thomas. “There was God and then there was Dr. Thomas,” Evers states with a broad smile. “He was the quintessential surgeon. He’d do a diverse array of surgeries in the morning, go to the ER and fix a broken leg, then see patients in the clinic all afternoon and sometimes all evening. He treated everybody. In high school I saw that and thought, ‘Gee, that’s really what I’d like to do.’”

Evers earned his medical degree, summa cum laude, at the University of Tennessee in Memphis and completed his residency training at the University of Louisville in 1988. “I was a general surgeon with a gastrointestinal (GI) focus. I wanted to be an academic surgeon—do research and perform surgeries—so I went to arguably one of the best GI physiology laboratories in the country in Galveston, Texas.”

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston became his home. Over the next 21 years, he created a second family: his 15-member lab team as well as the more than 40 junior faculty, residents, postdocs, and grad students he mentored along the way.

Evers explains that his lab team focused on a hormone called neurotensin, which is generated in response to fat consumption and found in the small intestine. Neurotensin plays a critical role in colorectal cancer, the country’s second-leading cancer killer, causing nearly 60,000 deaths each year. Evers’ team linked neurotensin to the production of IL-8, a potent inflammatory protein that accelerates the growth and spread of colorectal cancer.

Based on findings by other scientists that turmeric, a curry spice used for centuries in traditional Indian medicine, could fight skin and breast cancer, in 2006 Evers’ team discovered that turmeric could also knock out neurotensin. Turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, blocked the signals inside colon cancer cells, reducing the production of IL-8 and suppressing the growth and the migration of the cells. “Our findings suggested that curcumin may be useful for colon cancer treatment and suppression in cells that respond to this gut hormone neurotensin.” Evers says, adding, “About a third of all colorectal cancer cells have the receptor for neurotensin. So just like hormonally responsive breast and prostate tumors, the therapy for colorectal cancer would block hormones.”

Jay A. Perman, dean of the UK College of Medicine and vice president for clinical affairs, underscores the importance of Evers’ finding: “Curing cancer relies on being able to stop the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. If blocking a hormone sequesters cancer cells, we’ve made a huge leap in treatment.”

Evers’ success at UTMB brought him a slew of titles: professor of surgery, director of the UTMB Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Sealy Center for Cancer Cell Biology, and the Robertson-Poth Distinguished Chair of General Surgery. He has amassed hundreds of publication credits, for both clinical studies and basic science projects, and he has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health for the past 17 years—an impressive feat considering the aggressive competition for NIH dollars, especially recently. Evers brought nearly $14 million in grant funding to UK.

Perman says, “As important as the research is, one of the first things he asked me when we met was, ‘What are you doing here to create, to develop, to stimulate more physician-scientists to conquer the scourge of cancer?’ That was his concern, and I particularly value that, because that’s how the impact of bringing Dr. Evers here is multiplied.”

A new Kentucky home

But why did he pick up and move to Lexington? Was it a tough sell for his wife Karen, a pharmacist, and son Benjamin? His daughter Lauren, 19, is a student at Washington University in St. Louis, so the closer proximity of Lexington was a draw.

“I just caught the excitement. Everybody did.” While Evers toured the campus and cancer center, his son Ben enjoyed a UK football game and birthday cake (he turned 13 during the family’s first visit to Lexington) at Commonwealth Stadium, courtesy of Michael Karpf, UK’s executive vice president for health affairs, and his wife. And Evers’ colleagues came to Lexington, too, to see what it had to offer. Evers says, “And what we saw—a huge emphasis on building, on growth, on people, on care—was impressive to the entire group.”

Evers adds that in his experience the cooperation he witnessed between the College of Medicine and the UK Hospital is a rare commodity. “In the academic medical world there’s often infighting between the hospital and medical school. It’s so counterproductive. Here, to Dr. Karpf and Dr. Perman’s credit, the enterprise system has everybody working together. You’ve got shared visions and goals, and that really excited me.”

He says that the Top 20 business plan was the icing on the cake. “You sort of go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ because a lot of institutions say, ‘We want to be in the Top 20.’ But you come to UK, and President Lee Todd and Dr. Karpf have a plan. They’re sticking to it in terms of growth, and so you know it’s going to happen. And you just want to come and be part of that excitement.”

Evers stresses that because the colleagues who allowed him to succeed have joined him in Lexington, he’s confident he can “hit the ground running. When you can transplant an environment that is working well, you can keep up the level of productivity.” And he says he’s looking forward to working with the excellent clinicians and scientists at UK. “The Markey Cancer Center is extremely strong clinically and in basic science.” His goal is to foster translational teams. “By going after multi-disciplinary grants that team up researchers with physicians, we can succeed in translational science—taking cancer discoveries from the lab to patients faster.”

He adds that in the next five years he wants to earn National Cancer Institute designation, a distinction from the National Institutes of Health held by only 64 institutes in the country. “It’s a symbol that you’re the best of the best,” Evers says emphatically. “It’s more than prestige—it puts you in the running for the most cutting-edge clinical drug trials. It’s a huge boost for the university.”

And in a region crippled by cancer—Kentucky ranks first in lung cancer, second in colorectal cancer—Evers says his focus will be recruiting top researchers and clinicians to UK’s lung and colorectal cancer programs. “Building up areas where Kentucky has significant problems in terms of cancer is the fastest way to make a difference.”

But what is the biggest difference for Evers in his new Kentucky home? “I hate to admit it, but I was probably more of a football guy. But even I’ve been caught up in the Coach Cal excitement. I’ve missed SEC sports. I can’t promise I’ll always stay quiet if Tennessee scores, but I promise I won’t wear any orange.” The corners of his mouth ease into a grin as he says, “I have a whole closet full of orange clothes, but they never went with my hair anyway.”

Markey Cancer Center building

Click the photo to hear College of Medicine Dean Jay Perman talk about the first time he met Evers.


B. Mark Evers

Click the photo to hear what impressed B. Mark Evers about the University of Kentucky.

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Evers group

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