MICROSCOPY THROUGH AN ECOLOGIST ’S EYE
Cancer as a species? How radical thinking has researcher Mark Lloyd on the right track.
The ecology movement has a new battlefield. Way down at the cellular level. Where cancer cells run amok, tearing into the landscape of a human life. And Mark Lloyd, M.S., staff scientist at Moffitt, has emerged as an impassioned leader.
In a move that places an exclamation point deservedly after the word innovation, even if the explanation of this new ecological movement leaves some scratching their heads, Lloyd, his mentors Robert Gatenby, M.D., and Joel Brown, Ph.D., and his team of researchers have begun to look at cancer as its own species. And how this particularly insidious species evolves to survive.
To one of the head-scratchers, Lloyd explains: “A landscape ecologist looks at satellite images of trees and habitats. How new construction, for example, affects those habitats. We’re looking at the exact same thing. Except we’re looking not from a satellite but though a microscope.”
Lloyd runs Moffitt’s Analytic Microscopy Core laboratory, providing researchers with valuable information related to intracellular trafficking, cell cycle progression, DNA repair and more.
When he and his fellow scientists peer deeply into their microscopes, they have their eyes peeled for the things cancer cells must do to survive. The sinister habits they must develop. The destructive tactics they must employ.
As if reading from Darwin’s playbook, Lloyd continues: “Imagine you’re a cancer cell and you’re struggling to survive in an environment very hostile toward you. One, you’re competing with fellow cancer cells. And two, the body’s immune system is battling you tooth and nail. So you need to find a way to be fitter than all those others to survive. You will evolve.”
The understanding of what’s driving that evolution, says Lloyd, can lead to a more effective treatment.
“I believe nature is our best teacher,” he maintains. If the predictable rules of selection and adaptation pertain to cancer cells, he believes we can use them to find more effective ways of treating cancer.
This is heady stuff. The kind of stuff that, even if you don’t understand it, leaves you feeling deeply grateful we have such inquisitive minds in our corner. Oh, and empathetic ones at that.
“To be a scientist,” claims Lloyd, “means not simply to ask important questions, but most importantly to have an impact on patients. My job is to ask questions that will ultimately translate to optimal patient care. As an example, I like to spend time once a week hanging out in the patient lobby. Just chatting with patients.”
He listens to their stories and takes these stories back to the lab. He wants his researchers to always remember the reason they stare into microscopes all day. And this, he vehemently postulates, is what’s great about Moffitt: “Moffitt encourages researchers to have that close relationship with both clinicians and patients. To stay focused on the right questions. It helps so much to collaborate with lots of different kinds of people. It facilitates the multidisciplinary approach that I crave. Sure, I can publish. I can get grants. I can get all the pats on the back from my research collaborators and feel good about myself, but if I’m not making an impact on patients, then I’m not doing the best that I can.”
In this last statement lies the sum of Mark Lloyd. A scary- smart guy who’s pioneering a method of studying cancer cells that has more in common with the method scientists use to study snow leopards and crayfish; a guy who continues to juggle a day job in Tampa (that would suck the life from most of us) with doctoral work in biological sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. And an entrepreneur who recently founded a clinical service company called 2DP that develops pathology solutions to more rapidly and accurately diagnose cancer, with the aim of improving patient outcomes. Best of all, it turns out he’s just a regular guy bent on relieving human suffering.
And maybe that’s his real brilliance.