Sylvester Junior Faculty Member Hits the Ground Running
Justin Taylor, M.D., has been an assistant professor with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Miller School of Medicine for only a few months, and he is already making his mark. Dr. Taylor was recently honored by the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) with a Young Physician-Scientist Award and contributed to a Nature Genetics paper that sheds new light on myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and other cancers.
Before coming to Sylvester, Dr. Taylor was a postdoctoral researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), where he also completed a hematology/oncology fellowship. Not surprisingly, both his clinical practice and research are focused on hematologic malignancies.
“My lab is interested in the genetic and epigenetic factors that can go wrong and potentially cause blood cancers,” said Dr. Taylor. “We’re trying to understand how these mutations actually cause some of these cancers.”
The Story of ZRSR2
Dr. Taylor was a co-first author on the Nature Genetics study, which unravels some intricate molecular biology. Omar Abdel-Wahab, M.D., who mentored Dr. Taylor at MSKCC, was the study’s principal investigator.
Like a well-written mystery story, the study started in one direction but ultimately produced surprises. The early focus was an understudied gene, called ZRSR2, which had been implicated in some rare cancers. ZRSR2 is part of the minor spliceosome, which helps connect mRNA pieces and remove non-coding genetic elements called introns.
Spliceosome mutations are significant because they can prevent genes from being translated into proteins. In the study, the research team found five proteins affected by the ZRSR2 variants. Further screening pointed to one specific protein, LZTR1, which is responsible for degrading a family of oncogenes called RAS. LZTR1 is the main driver in a familial cancer called Noonan syndrome.
“Because ZRSR2 is mutated, it fails to remove the introns from LZTR1 mRNA and the protein is never expressed,” said Dr. Taylor. “Without LZTR1, RAS becomes unregulated, contributing to increased hematopoietic stem cell growth and MDS, an early form of blood cancer.”
LZTR1 loss has been linked to other cancers, so there’s a lot more work to be done, which is perfectly fine with Dr. Taylor. His tenure-track position, and ability to study these cancer-driving genetic anomalies, is the fruition of long-held aspirations.
“I graduated from high school in 2001, around the time the first human genome was published,” he said. “That really just sparked my interest, and I’ve been fascinated with genetics and epigenetics ever since.”
The ASCI Award
Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., nominated Dr. Taylor for the ASCI award, which recognizes early career physician-scientists who have already published significant research. Dr. Nimer was impressed by Dr. Taylor’s research and clinical track record.
“Justin Taylor, M.D., is a physician-scientist devoted to improving outcomes for patients with hematologic malignancies.” Dr. Nimer said on the ASCI nomination form. “He has received Young Investigator Awards from ASCO Conquer Cancer Foundation, Hairy Cell Leukemia Foundation and Evans MDS Foundation.”
The ASCI award acknowledges that being a physician-scientist is like having two full-time jobs, and seeks to encourage these dedicated individuals to continue their efforts.
“Even to be nominated is a tremendous honor,” said Dr. Taylor. “As a physician and a scientist, you’re kind of pulled in separate directions sometimes, and it’s not always easy to keep a foot in both worlds. Awards like this encourage us to continue treading that line, providing great patient care and conducting the in-depth studies that will continue to improve treatments.”