When Drew Shirley received a clinical fellowship in surgical oncology and arrived at the James in 2011, he had a specific career goal in mind.
“From early on, I wanted to be a surgeon who also did research,” Drew said.
Many James doctors do research and see patients, but the majority combined an M.D. with a PhD. Drew took a different route and, with the help of a Pelotonia Fellowship, he was able to jump start his research and make some important discoveries and connections. He’s investigating integrin-linked kinase (ILK), a protein that “cancer cells express more than non-cancer cells.” Drew was named to the faculty at the James in 2014 and has been awarded two National Institutes of Health grants, administered by the James, to expand his ILK-related research.
“Without the Pelotonia Fellowship, all of this success to this point would have been in question,” he said. “Now, I have my own lab and a post-doc researcher and undergraduate researchers and, two of my researchers are in the process of applying for Pelotonia Fellowships.”
Drew grew up in Versailles, Kentucky, went to Vanderbilt University and then medical school at the University of Kentucky. During his general surgery residency at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia, he was drawn to surgical oncology and began doing cancer-related research.
“After my residency was over, I interviewed at several places,” Drew said. “I fell in love with Ohio State and what they have here, the combination of surgery and research. You could see the connection and it starts at the top, with the leadership of Mike Caligiuri. And I met and talked with several surgeons who were role models for what I wanted to do.”
Drew’s clinical fellowship in surgical oncology was for two years – and didn’t include a research component.
“I wanted a third year to devote to basic science research,” he said. “They said yes, as long as I could find the funding.”
That’s where the two-year, post-doc Pelotonia Fellowship came in, and provided Drew with the time and funds he needed in order to do research.
His first collaboration was with Dr. Ching-Shih Chen in the Department of Pharmacy. They looked at how ILK impacted pancreatic cancer patients. “Patients with higher ILK did worse,” Drew said. “We started looking for an ILK inhibitor that would inhibit the function of this protein and doesn’t kill normal cells.”
They are developing a compound, called T315, to inhibit ILK in pancreatic cancer patients.
Drew is also working with Dr. Matthew Ringel, a James endocrinologist. “We found that ILK is also over expressed in more aggressive thyroid cancers and leads to a shorter time between recurrences,” Drew said.
They have tested the tissue samples of thousands of thyroid cancer patients and are working on alternative treatments for those with higher ILK counts.
Drew and his wife, Kelly, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, have two kids: Audrey, 9, and Sam, 7.
Although he has little time to train, Drew had ridden in every Pelotonia since 2012 and did the 100-mile route for the first time in 2015.
“It was almost overwhelming emotionally to see so many people supporting a cause I’m so passionate about,” he said. “And, when I’m having a bad day in the lab or with a patient, when things aren’t going well, I think of the Pelotonia experience and it pushes me to keep moving forward.”