Former local, now a ‘science star’ in cancer research, to speak at Roanoke luncheon

Dr. Mark R. Kelley, formerly of Huntington, is a prominent medical scientist who specializes in cancer research. He will speak at a luncheon in Roanoke on April 25.
Dr. Mark R. Kelley, formerly of Huntington, is a prominent medical scientist who specializes in cancer research. He will speak at a luncheon in Roanoke on April 25. Photo provided.

Originallhy published April 4, 2013.

Years ago, Dr. Mark R. Kelley was just a fifth-grader at an elementary school in Huntington County.

"I was always interested in science and actually I remember my fifth grade science teacher, Mr. Williams, was really good," he says. "He really challenged the kids. He was a lot of fun to learn from."

Today, Kelley is a prominent medical scientist who specializes in cancer research and is, among other things, a professor of pediatric oncology research at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and associate director of the Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research, also in Indianapolis.

How did he get there?

Born in Huntington, where his father was the director of the YMCA for many years, Kelley's fascination with science, solidified during those grade school years, continued into his time at Huntington North High School, from where he graduated in 1975 and led to his decision to attend DePauw University in Greencastle.

Pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in zoology, Kelley cites DePauw's off-campus programs that allowed him to spend semesters in Friedberg, Germany, and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN, with growing his love for science further.

Kelley terms his time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as "a great experience, because you got to work in a lab of real researchers."

Working there, Kelley says, helped him decide to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy rather than a Doctor of Medicine, a degree that would allow him to advance knowledge rather than apply existing knowledge.

"The person I worked with at Oak Ridge actually had gotten his degree from Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, and so I ended up going down to Louisiana State and doing my Ph.D. work there," he says.

Kelley earned a Master of Science in zoology from the school in 1981 before obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy in genetics there in 1984.

After that, Kelley became an American Cancer Society post-doctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University in New York, NY, which eventually led to a position as an assistant professor of biochemistry and medicine at Loyola University Medical School in Chicago, IL, where he was both a teacher and researcher.

It was here that Kelley decided to shift his focus away from Drosophila, which is a genus of small flies.

"About that point I started switching over from Drosophila to mammalian systems, meaning human cell culture and looking more at medical-related studies," he says. "And I've always been interested in DNA repair. So, that's the system of protein or enzymes that come along and fixes your DNA when it gets damaged by either natural agents, stuff from the environment or hereditary defects. And so I started doing more work on that ... and that's really what I've been doing ever since."

"And then I moved, '93, down here to IU School of Medicine. There's a Department of Pediatrics doing the cancer work and we've been focusing a lot on pediatric cancers as well as adult cancers, too.

"So that's kind of the long, circuitous route from Huntington all the way around and back down here to Indianapolis."

Aside from being the associate director of the Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research where, Kelley says, "There're about 36 investigators ... doing what we call translational research, which is trying to get discoveries to go from the bench to the clinic to help patients," he wears many other hats.

One of those hats is being the associate director for Basic Science Research at the IU Simon Cancer Center, where he describes his role as facilitating "the basic scientists in their research in the cancer center to, again, sort of translate these findings from the lab to the clinic.

"I serve on the executive committee there and just kind of keep our pulse on it and try to help out the investigators be as productive as possible and interact and collaborate with one another."

Additionally, he's co-director of the Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery Initiative, which is an initiative on the IU campus to help investigators find small molecules that will block or inhibit the target proteins in cancer; associate director of the IU Pancreatic Cancer Signature Center; director of the program in molecular pediatric oncology; and has two startup companies, one that focuses on the intellectual properties he's developed at IU and pancreatic cancer and another that looks at age-related macular degeneration.

What drives him?

"We'd really like to find some better treatments for these really hideous diseases," Kelley says. "Some of the cancers have made great progress and others, they're not completely successful."

Kelley says progress has been made with treatment of breast, prostate and testicular cancer, but that there are a number of other cancers where "just no progress has been made.

"For example, pancreatic cancer has a 5 percent survival rate; that really hasn't changed a lot over the last 30 years," he notes.

Kelley's love for science also motivates him.

"I think sometimes you get so wrapped up in the details of things of what you're doing and you forget that it's pretty cool and you really get to be kind of an explorer every day," he says. "Where something is new every day. It hasn't been done."

Currently, Kelley and his colleagues are working on an alternative treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

"We're really looking at the treatments for ALL in kids," he says. "They have about an 85 percent survival rate with the standard treatments, but the children that I've treated that don't respond to that treatment, there really aren't any good treatments out there."

After confirming with animal experiments that the treatment works, Kelley says he and colleagues will file with the Food and Drug Administration to get clinical trials.

"I think that's probably our most immediate thing that we're working on that we're pretty excited about," he states.

Also, Kelley mentions new drugs he and colleagues are working on for pancreatic cancer and glioma treatments, which is a type of tumor that starts in the brain or spine.

On Kelley's schedule for April 25 is a trip up to Roanoke and Fort Wayne.

Kelley's appearance in Roanoke will be at a luncheon hosted by the Cottage Event Center. The luncheon will begin at 11:30 a.m. and conclude at 1 p.m., with a fee to attend.

"We like to do these events, mainly sponsored through the Riley Children's Foundation, so (the public) can ask questions and find out that ‘Well, maybe the scientists aren't so weird,' we're just like everyone else and what we're doing and what it takes to do what we're trying to do," he says.

Kelley also likes discussing his profession at two programs titled ‘Molecular Medicine in Action,' hosted by the Wells Center, with one aimed at high school science teachers and the other at high school students.

In the latter program, a group of 50 high school students, largely comprised of seniors, visits the center and gets to meet the faculty and listen to lectures over the course of two days each spring.

"We're really trying to bring back to the community and get students very much interested in science and show them who we are," says Kelley, adding that it's "kind of a nice way to bring it full circle."

The similarities between Kelley and his fifth grade self may be few, but he still finds science fun.

"Every time you do an experiment you learn something new," he says. "A lot of times it's not successful and then you go try it again or try something different and go down a different route.

"I think it's one of the few things that can be new every day."