Carmel Valley resident leads cancer research at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

By Kristina Houck

Dr. Kristiina Vuori has always enjoyed solving problems. As president and interim CEO of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, there is one problem she has tried to solve for years: cancer.

“I think I really got interested in cancer as a research problem,” Vuori said. “There have been a lot of advances in the field of medicine and disease, like cardiovascular diseases, but less so in cancer.

“Why is it that something starts growing in our body? We don’t really understand the process. I think to understand it is the only way we can eliminate it.”

The Carmel Valley resident has devoted her career to studying tumor metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. She has published her research on cellular-communication networks that regulate cancer-cell survival, motility and drug resistance.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small part in the world,” said Vuori, who grew up in Finland. “Hopefully, it will have some impact.”

Vuori has always liked science. She considered becoming an astronomer, but went to medical school somewhat by default. Both of her parents were doctors.

She earned her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Oulu in Finland. After completing her internship and residency, Vuori came to Sanford-Burnham for her postdoctoral training in 1992.

Initially called the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, Sanford-Burnham was established in 1976 to study cancer. Headquartered in La Jolla with a second campus in Orlando, Fla., the research institution has since expanded to study a variety of diseases.

“I have almost grown with the institute,” said Vuori, who noted about 1,000 people work at the La Jolla site. “The institute has grown tremendously here on the Torrey Pines Mesa.”

Vuori quickly began earning positions of leadership. She was appointed to faculty in 1996 and selected as a PEW Scholar in the biomedical sciences in 1997. She served as co-director of Sanford-Burnham’s Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics. For 10 years, she served as director of the institute’s Cancer Center, one of seven basic cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute.

The Cancer Center received its NCI designation in 1981. Under her direction, the Cancer Center underwent a five-year renewal project in 2010 with an “outstanding” rating and an increase in grant funding.

“We not only do laboratory research and try to seek the knowledge about diseases, but we also try to take that knowledge and really transform it to therapeutics,” Vuori said. “We have a very active drug discovery program here, a center that really focuses on drug discovery. That’s unique for us, compared to other medical research institutes.”

Cancer Center scientists have created two FDA-approved cancer drugs and five experimental therapies currently in clinical trials.

“That’s the dream of every scientist at some point in time — to have their research really benefit human beings and impact human health,” Vuori said. “I hope that we can continue to do that even more in the future.”

In 2008, Vuori was appointed executive vice president for scientific affairs at Sanford-Burnham. She has been president of the institute since April 2010, and became the interim CEO in January.

Recently, she was named to the California Breast Cancer Research Council, the official advisory body for the California Breast Cancer Research Program, the nation’s largest state-funded cancer research effort.

“It’s an opportunity to really contribute at the statewide level in an area that is extremely important and affects many, many people in the state,” said Vuori, who remains a professor in the institute’s Cancer Center and Tumor Microenvironment Program. “It’s an opportunity to paint a bigger canvas and hope that you can have a greater impact.”

In addition, Vuori serves on the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and on the California Breast Cancer Research Council. She is also a board member on the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which aims to advance stem cell research through collaborative, multi-disciplinary interactions between Sanford-Burnham, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, The Scripps Research Institute, and UC San Diego.

Although Vuori launched a career in cancer research because of the challenge, ultimately, she hopes through continued growth and collaboration, Sanford-Burnham will help more and more people.

“Going forward, I hope that we can increasingly have impact on human health,” she said. “Our slogan is, ‘From Research, the Power to Cure.’ My hope is that we can really live up to the expectation that we have set for ourselves.”

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