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PEOPLE: THE HEART OF THE CVM
As the Perlman Endowed Chair of Oncology and Comparative Medicine and director of the Animal Cancer Care and Research (ACCR) program, Dr. Jaime Modiano wants to help create a world in which cancer is no longer feared.
“It’s impossible to create a world without cancer when you are dealing with multicellular individuals, but maybe we can take the mysticism and darkness out of it,” Modiano says.
A joint effort between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Masonic Cancer Center, the ACCR program is a virtual platform for researchers from colleges in the Academic Health Center who are working on cancer research that focuses on more than one species of animal. Modiano also runs a cancer research lab in the Masonic Cancer Center.
“A lot of what I do is to create the right environment for people to be successful and do what they are good at,” he says. “It’s about surrounding yourself with really brilliant people, trying to make their work easier, and then getting out of their way.” Modiano learned that philosophy from his mentors.
The son and grandson of Jewish refuges, Modiano was born in Mexico City. He completed three years of undergraduate studies at Texas A&M University on a student visa. It was there that Modiano become curious about the genetics of cancer. While he knew he wanted to be a scientist and was drawn to cancer research, he wasn’t sure which scientific discipline to follow.
“I loved animals, so vet school seemed to be a reasonable compromise,” he says. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine offered a combined VMD/PhD program and accepted foreign students. After three years of undergraduate work, Modiano started veterinary school in 1984 and his PhD program in 1985 at the University of Pennsylvania at a time when a revolution in molecular biology was occurring.
“I had the amazing opportunity to work with Dr. Peter Nowell, who is the father of modern cancer genetics,” Modiano says. A pathologist and early proponent of One Health as well as Modiano’s PhD advisor, Nowell discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, the abnormal swap of genetic material responsible for chronic myelogenous leukemia.
A lot of what I do is to create the right environment for people to be successful and do what they are good at. It’s about surrounding yourself with really brilliant people, trying to make their work easier, and then getting out of their way.
“I never knew if he was joking when he would tell me that as a veterinarian I should go and find the Philadelphia chromosome in dogs,” Modiano recalls. “At the time, I thought that it was incredibly strange and crazy he would say that.” Many years later, however, Modiano and Dr. Matthew Breen, a professor of genomics at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine, would actually discover the equivalent of the Philadelphia chromosome in dogs.
“Today when I talk to my graduate students, I tell them that maybe they will be the ones to actually figure out why the translocation that creates the Philadelphia chromosome happens, and they will then do justice to their pedigree of having Dr. Nowell as their scientific grandfather,” Modiano says with a smile.
In 1991, after completing his VMD and PhD in immunology, Modiano pursued a residency in clinical pathology at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. It was there that he met Michelle Ritt, a veterinary student who he later would marry.
At end of his residency, though, reality hit.
“As you climb the totem pole, you leave a lot of people behind, but the people still with you at the top are all really good,” he says. “I realized after my residency that to be a top scientist, I needed more training.”
Modiano next pursued postdoctoral training at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, working with pediatric immunologist Dr. Erwin Gelfand.
“His lab was like a postdoc heaven,” Modiano says. “There were 20 of us postdocs in the lab, and he was only there enough to remind us that he knew more than all of us combined. He gave us a lot of freedom, but he had lofty expectations.” Modiano received two National Institutes of Health grants, including a Clinical Investigator Development Award, his first year in the lab.
He then accepted a faculty position in pathobiology at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine while Ritt completed her internship and residency. The couple moved back to Denver, where he took a position at the University of Colorado School of Medicine to build a research program. It was in Denver that his work accelerated in canine cancer genetics, an area few people were researching at a molecular level. He had no plans to leave Denver, but in 2007 he accepted the Perlman Chair at the college, an opportunity he says he couldn’t afford to miss.
An avid cyclist, Modiano owns three bikes and commutes between the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses using Nice Ride bikes. He has completed Ride the Rockies, a 447-mile route with a 32,000-foot elevation climb, four times. But ascending the summit is nothing new for this cancer researcher.