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Charles Mullighan, MBBS (Hons), MD: 2008 ASH Scholar

Charles Mullighan, MBBS (Hons), MD
Member, St. Jude Faculty, Co-Leader, Hematological Malignancies Program
William E. Evans Endowed Chair, Departments of Pathology and Hematological Malignancies Program
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Memphis, TN

On Receiving the Scholar Award

I was elated when I received the Scholar Award. For clinician scientists who’ve done a post-doc and are working in hematology, it is the premier junior training faculty award. So, it was a tremendous honor to receive this award. In terms of the impact that it had on me, it was very concrete. At the time, I had my own lab and two people, and the Scholar Award allowed me to take on an additional person to really leverage the work that I was doing.

Research Focus

I was working on a couple of projects as a post-doctoral fellow at St. Jude and in about 2005, we started using what was at the time a new approach, which was microRNA profiling, to try and understand the genetic changes in leukemic cells. We knew that it was a genetic disease, but our understanding was rather limited regarding the many genetic changes that were present in leukemic cells. We did a series of studies and we found a couple of very interesting genetic changes were associated with particular forms of ALL. One example was a genetic change associated with the Philadelphia chromosome, positive form of leukemia.

The Scholar Award research was really seeking to take that in two directions. One was to push the genomic envelope if you like to use more high-resolution and sophisticated techniques to further advance our genetic understanding. The second was to perform experimental work, to understand how these genetic changes were cooperating in the process of leukemia development.

The project was a very logical extension of what I had done before, but it had a lot of novelty, because we were seeking to develop entirely new experimental and mouse models of leukemia that just didn’t exist. So, it’s not like we were one protein or one gene or using an existing model and perhaps exploring that in a bit more detail. We were trying to do something completely new.

If you look back, there have been a series of publications that have come out of the Scholar Award. I got the award the best part of a decade ago, but the best and most important paper that came from the award was published last year. So it was a long road that was really started by that Scholar Award that led to what I’m very proud of being a very important publication the nature of that form of leukemia.

Career Impact

It was a very special time for me. I had just started off. It had been a long road doing all of that clinical training at a post-doc and working in a very good lab, but someone else’s lab. The Scholar Award came along just as I was starting up my own lab. It was a really unique time in my career. I had a blank slate and could really do what I chose to do, which was setting up and forging my own path.

This sort of award is so important because it gives people stable funding for at least a few years at a critical phase in their career, going from a mentored position to an independent faculty position. It takes time and it takes support and it’s difficult. It’s even more difficult now than when I had the Scholar Award to get that kind of federal funding. These types of support awards are absolutely crucial to the success of people like me and to the continued development of our field.