The University Record, March 27, 2000

Carey takes audience from the research lab to the clinic

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

Thomas Carey delivered the Distinguished Research Scientist Lecture last week. His work helps physicians select the best treatment for patients with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck. Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services
Two patients with an advanced stage of head and neck cancer receive the same therapy. One patient lives; the other dies.

One of Thomas E. Carey’s goals as a research scientist is to find ways to help physicians select the best treatments for patients based on the genetic characteristics of their tumor—to allow for organ-sparing therapies whenever possible and to save lives by giving the most effective treatment.

In cases of squamous cell cancer of the head and neck, Carey and his colleagues in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology and in the Laboratory of Cytogenetics at Henry Ford Hospital have discovered a region of genetic loss on chromosome 18 in tumors that are more biologically aggressive and more likely to cause the death of the patient. His current research on this problem will map the most commonly lost region and identify the gene responsible for rapid tumor progression. The researchers also have identified other genetic changes in tumors that predict who will respond to chemotherapy and radiation, and who will require surgery.

Carey, founder and director of the Laboratory of Head and Neck Cancer Biology and winner of this year’s Distinguished Research Scientist Award, explained his research in his Distinguished Research Scientist Lecture, “From the Clinic to the Lab and Back: A Scientist’s Approach to Cancer Progression and Autoimmune Hearing Loss,” March 23 in Ford Amphitheater. The award is the highest honor the U-M bestows upon a senior research scientist. Inaugurated in 1989, the award carries with it the title of Distinguished Research Scientist for the remainder of Carey’s U-M career and a $3,000 grant per year for four years.

As part of the scientific presentation, Carey showed slides of and talked about his mentors and the many students, research scientists and physicians with whom he has collaborated since joining the U-M in 1978. He also expressed appreciation to his support staff and family.

“As a scientist in a clinical department, I am always reminded by interactions with my clinical colleagues of the problems that need to be addressed in the laboratory,” Carey said. “I hope I can convey to you how the extraordinary environment I have been privileged to share has contributed to our research success. In particular, I hope to show you how outstanding students and colleagues have made my career exciting and productive well beyond anything I could have hoped possible.”

Carey, who has been studying hearing loss at the molecular level since 1990, also has made important discoveries regarding hearing losses caused by the body’s immune system attacking the hair cells in the inner ear.

Working first with mice and then guinea pigs, Carey created inner ear-specific monoclonal antibodies that could cause deafness. He hypothesized that antibodies produced to a similar inner ear protein by an autoimmune disorder similar to lupus or thyroiditis also could cause rapidly progressive deafness in humans. If so, then early detection of such antibodies would allow physicians to objectively employ immunosuppressive drugs before auditory hair cells are damaged and should help preserve hearing in those patients.

His research, conducted in collaboration with otolaryngology physicians and other scientists in the Kresge Hearing Research Institute, is progressing toward the identification of the protein that is the target of autoimmune damage in humans and should lead to a rapid test for diagnosis and management of autoimmune hearing loss.

While working as a postdoctoral fellow at Sloan-Kettering Institute’s Cancer Serology Laboratory, a chance conversation between a Sloan-Kettering colleague and Charles Krause, the then-new chair of otolaryngology at the U-M, led to Carey’s appointment as a cancer immunologist at Michigan.

“Good mentoring is critical to the success of each of us, and I have been very fortunate in this respect,” Carey said. “Chuck hired me, and after he hired me, he came to the lab to see me every Friday. He also took me on rounds with him to learn the clinical problems most in need of study. He made sure that I had access to patient materials, tissue, blood and follow-up notes. At the time we started there were less than five human head and neck cancer lines in existence in the world.” Today, the more than 150 cell lines established at the U-M from squamous cell cancers of the head and neck are a valued resource used by scientists around the world.

Carey continues the mentoring tradition, supervising the research of eight to 10 undergraduate and medical students and postdoctoral fellows. Each year he also has two or three Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students work in his laboratory. Many of his former trainees are teaching in medical schools or have become independent researchers.

“Tom Carey is a splendid scientist and mentor,” Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs, said at a reception following the lecture. “His achievements reflect the importance of the research scientist track in the faculty. The esteem in which he is regarded in his own department and throughout the Medical School and the larger University reinforces the complementary roles of faculty in all tracks.”

Medical School Dean Allen S. Lichter, who has collaborated with Carey, said, “Tom is one of those very special people who can recognize talent and bring it out in people. He also is effective in working with sophisticated bench researchers and with clinical faculty who have no bench research experience. He forms a human bridge between these two disciplines. The things that are happening in Tom’s lab are affecting the outcomes of human disease. I think it is wonderful that he is being recognized.”

The lecture is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research.