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Cancer cure catalyst

Bill Murphy isn't just a master cancer researcher...his powers of persuasion and communication make a formidable package.

Tom Kozel, chair of the University of Nevada School of Medicine's Department of Microbiology is working in his office on a June day in 1999 when the phone rings. At the end of the line is Bill Murphy, director of basic research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, Md.
"'Hi, this is Bill Murphy. I'd like to work at the University of Nevada,' is what I basically said," Murphy recalls. "I need to move to Reno, do you have a position?" The two men chat. Kozel is impressed. It's not often you get approached by someone like Murphy — "a world-class scientist in a very, very important area of research," Kozel says.

As well as being an outstanding cancer researcher, Murphy is in charge of more than 250 people at a national research lab, overseeing a $30 million budget. He wants to move to Reno because his father-in-law is getting on in years and the family wants to be close to him.

Kozel tells Murphy the university doesn't have a position at present, but if he can get grants, he can come. Murphy says he'll see what he can come up with and hangs up the phone.

It is the quintessential "cold call" from a consummate salesman. But that's what Bill Murphy is. He does great research, but he also knows how to sell it.

"Science is communication; it really is," Murphy says. "You can be the most brilliant scientist but if you can't communicate it, you can't get funding and you can't get recognition for your ideas. You have to be persuasive."

In just two years, he generated enough grants to fund not just his own salary and research, but also bring to Nevada key members of his research team from NCI, such as Lis Welniak, a research assistant professor. It's especially impressive because Murphy is coming from a system in which he was not required to write grants.

"Going into an academic institution from a national research laboratory is actually a difficult transition," Murphy says. "But, I got permission from the NCI director to be able to apply for grants because I had committed to eventually leave the NCI."

So, in June 2002, Murphy, his wife, Lisa (Lisa Rogers, '84, Biology) their four children, ages 6 to 11, and the family's pet mouse, Mickey, packed into a Suburban pulling a pop-up trailer and headed west across the United States — a journey that took a month.

"What a trip," Murphy says. "It's a great way to see the country — Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Mammoth Caves, the St. Louis arch — We never would have done it otherwise. The kids loved it."

Rapid rise through the ranks at NCI

After receiving his doctorate in immunology from Dallas' Southwestern Medical School in 1989, Murphy, 41, rose rapidly through the ranks at the National Cancer Institute. In just 10 years, starting as a research fellow, he became a principal investigator, section head and, finally, director of basic research.

"The NCI was just an incredible place," he says. "Extremely intense. When you're at that cutting edge, it's a fantastic training ground."

In May of last year, Murphy (whose research centers on bone marrow transplantation and cancer), learned he'd been named an American Cancer Society Scholar. The prestigious award (previous winners have gone on to Nobel prizes) is worth $1 million over five years.

"It's a tremendous honor," Murphy says.

It was the catalyst that really got the research grant ball rolling.

In addition to the ACS award, Murphy currently has three National Institutes of Health grants, and another from the Department of Defense (to study breast cancer). All told, his direct and indirect funding sources add up to about $1.2 million a year, with many of the grants being 3-5 years in duration. He also continues to collaborate on bone marrow transplantation research with his former colleagues at NCI.

"In essence, Nevada is becoming a satellite National Cancer Institute because the NCI is directly funneling money outside of a grant so that I can continue to work with the people in Maryland, which is really nice," he says.
Although he came to Nevada on "soft" money, Murphy has since been given a faculty appointment in the School of Medicine.

"It's one of those situations where things worked out," Kozel says. "It took a lot of work on everyone's part at all levels of the university to make it happen. It was a real team effort."

Fate or something like it

The timing of Murphy's arrival in Nevada couldn't have been better. Construction is about to begin on the new $40 million Nevada Cancer Institute, a comprehensive cancer research and treatment facility in Las Vegas, with completion scheduled for late 2004. The institute's founders are Jim and Heather Murren. Jim is president and chief financial officer for MGM Mirage. Murphy has accepted the position of associate director and director of basic research at the new center. Other University of Nevada School of Medicine cancer researchers, along with those at UNLV and DRI, are being offered adjunct positions with the institute.

"It's going to enhance the connection between the north and the south," Murphy says. "I'm going to stay here and again do the dual lab role, where half of my lab is here and half in Las Vegas. I think the cancer institute is an extremely good thing."

Nevada's President John Lilley agrees: "The core of the Nevada Cancer Institute is built upon our faculty in the School of Medicine, and this new effort will benefit everyone. The institute will mobilize and coordinate cancer research and treatment within the state, creating a critical mass of talented researchers, state-of-the-art facilities, and cutting edge treatments."

Murphy can barely contain his excitement when describing the Nevada Cancer Institute. He sees it as the nucleus needed to make the state of Nevada a serious player in cancer research and treatment.

"It starts a domino effect," he says. "Once you get good people, then you get them mobilized and you get political backing and get private enterprises like the MGM Mirage involved — all of a sudden you start to see other areas say, 'Hey, this is good, let's go here.'

"I think you're really going to see Nevada change. You're going to see the biotechnology investment occur. California's so expensive. If you're going to do a biotechnology company, why would you set up shop in San Francisco versus a place where you have no state income tax, low overhead, a very enthusiastic population, and a university that's willing to work with you?"

Murphy's vision extends to more than just research. He's also keen on making education part of the package and is coordinating a cancer course at Nevada, which will begin in the fall with a graduate-level cancer biology class. Ultimately, Murphy plans to use teleconferencing facilities to allow southern Nevada students to be part of what he envisages as a statewide course.

"That's the beginning of the pipeline," he says. "By getting cancer in the forefront and by coordinating both the campuses, north and south, we're going to get the students interested. They're going to be in the labs, they're going to start getting excited, they're going to stay here in Nevada and that's going to increase our intellectual pool."

The advantages of downsizing

Sitting in his office on the third floor of the Applied Research Facility on the university campus, Murphy is animated and excited as he describes his vision for cancer research in the state of Nevada. It's like listening to Apple Computer's CEO Steve Jobs at a stockholder's meeting. Vision plus salesmanship is a powerful combination.

"There's so much potential here," Murphy enthuses. "And so much willingness to get it to work. I find that totally refreshing. There's that frontier spirit. There's something about a place that's hungry and this place is very hungry."

Coming from a huge research institution, Murphy might have chosen to see Nevada's size as a limitation. Instead, he sees it as an advantage.

"Coming from a monster like the NCI, this is a breath of fresh air," he says. "There's so much potential. When you go to a place that's so established, it becomes very rigid and you don't see the innovation that you do here."

Removed from the competitive environment of NCI, Murphy says he enjoys connecting with his fellow researchers in the medical school and is appreciative of their expertise. For example, Murphy's research involves looking at a particular cell type called natural killer (NK) cells. At Nevada, Dorothy Hudig studies NK cells' ability to kill tumor cells.

"It's kind of ironic," Murphy says. "NK cells are a subset of immunology, but here in Nevada I have an NK person that I can talk to. I didn't even have that at NCI sometimes. This is a much more collegial environment and that's where you go into new areas."

That's being demonstrated by his collaboration with microbiology department chair Tom Kozel.

"He's a world's expert on fungal infections," Murphy says. "It just so happens that fungal infections occur after a bone marrow transplant. I never would have approached it if I'd stayed at NCI because everybody's just so fixated on cancer. Yet this is a very real complication and problem. That's the beauty of science. You see where there can be interactions where you might not have realized it before."

Curing cancer?

Murphy was born in Queens, N.Y. in December 1961. His mother was a nurse and his father a New York City firefighter. "Fortunately, he retired before 9/11, but he lost a lot of friends," he says. Murphy grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers University, where he earned a bachelor's in biology in 1984.

"There, I was interested in the creative process of research," he says. "Medicine was interesting, but there's something about research that's like art, where you put your own stamp on it."

Bone marrow transplantation is Murphy's primary research interest. "It's not just used as a treatment, it's also used as a way to study how the immune system develops," he says. "This is particularly important in the aged. We still don't really understand what happens to the immune system as we age." Ultimately, he sees a future in which cancer is perhaps not cured, but kept at bay — a similar approach to the way HIV/AIDS is now treated.

"Chemotherapy kills 90 percent of tumors but the 10 percent that comes back is very resistant to what you just used," he says. "And it's going to come back with a vengeance. So, we're thinking of coming in with a multiple approach."

In addition to bone marrow transplantation, which is an extension of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, Murphy says additional therapies, such as the introduction of natural killer cells, would be used. "All these things will then provide a 1-2-3 punch," he says. "More importantly, you don't have to give as much of everything."

Other research developments make this an exciting time to be in cancer therapy Murphy says. "They're already curing cancers. Inthe '60s, many cancers had a 100 percent mortality rate. Now, some have a 90 percent survival rate. Cancer is like hundreds of different diseases. I think we'll make a lot of progress in certain types of cancers. Unfortunately, some types of cancers such as pancreatic are extremely aggressive and kill fast. We have a ways to go."

With the mapping of the human genome and new technologies such as microarray — where you can genetically fingerprint a tumor — it is becoming possible to do things previously unimagined, Murphy says.

"Before, we used to just give you a poison and hope that it killed the tumor before we killed you. Now, we're saying, 'Wait a minute, let's look at other approaches.' There have been some very exciting papers written that indicate we're going in the right direction. Bone marrow transplantation is tied to that, so that's why I'm very excited about our work and its application — not just in cancer, but in infectious disease, too."

Home, sweet home

As enthusiastic as Murphy is about his professional activities, he visibly purrs when describing how his lifestyle's been upgraded by the move west. Liberated from hours of daily gridlock in Maryland, he now bikes to and from his west Reno home — often returning to his lab in mid evening after putting his children to bed.

"This is a perfect area," he says. "It's a secret. I'm inviting a lot of my NCI friends here now and they're coming away wide-eyed. They think Nevada is just desert. They don't really have a clue."

Murphy's Nevada connection comes from his wife, Lisa. Her father, James Rogers, was the university engineer back in the 1950s and '60s and helped build the Fleischmann Planetarium. The couple met at graduate school in Dallas, Lisa receiving a doctorate in physiology. She worked in the U.S. Army for four years before making the decision to stay home with the family after the birth of their third child. She continues to serve as a major in the Reserve. "She outranks me," says Murphy, a veteran of 11 years in the National Guard and Reserve.

Spending time with the family is a priority for Murphy, who this winter cut short a meeting in Colorado to fly back to be a bus supervisor in the City of Reno's Sky Tavern junior ski program, in which his children participate.

"You make the time," he says. "Science is like a vacuum. It will always take more."

Considering that he's the son of a nurse and a firefighter, it's fitting that Murphy places a lot of importance on giving to others — especially kids. While in grad school, he worked at a runaway shelter, and in Maryland, served on the state's foster care review board. In Reno, he's a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), giving support to children in the court system.

"In science, you lose your perspective sometimes," he says. "This provides a balance. If a paper or a grant doesn't get in, you realize there's a bigger picture here. Otherwise, it can become very abstract — it's a test tube or a cell. It loses its human touch.

"I'm so indebted to my wife for making me come here. There's a community here that's unlike anything I've ever seen and that's a big selling point that I don't think people realize, especially in the East. The sense of community makes life so much easier. You can actually focus on the research. When you're stable at your base, you can start doing the risky things."

By John Wheeler

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