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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Marcus Peter, PhD, Professor in Medicine-Hematology/Oncology

Marcus Peter, PhD

Marcus Peter, PhD, professor in medicine-hematology/oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, balances destruction in the lab with creation outside of it. Studying the process of apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death, Peter hopes to use his research to better understand and treat cancer. When he needs a break from the breakdown of cells, Peter occasionally trades in his white coat for white keys.

“My hobbies include making and writing music,” Peter said. “I started to play the piano when I was 5 years old. I view playing the piano as therapy to better cope with the demands of my work.”

A dual German-US citizen, Peter has lived in the Midwest with his family since 1999, when he began working at the University of Chicago. Before that, he completed his undergraduate studies in Frankfurt in 1982; moving to Bayreuth, Germany, to complete his masters and PhD program in 1988. He joined Feinberg two years ago.

What are your research interests?
My lab has two major interests. Our main focus is on the Fas receptor and how it induces apoptosis in normal tissues and in diseases. In addition, we recently found that while Fas is required to induce apoptosis in immune cells, it acts as a survival factor for cancer cells. We are in the process of testing whether blocking Fas signaling can be used to treat cancer.

We are also interested in the role that microRNAs play in cancer progression. We previously identified classes of microRNAs that are deregulated during tumor progression and are using microRNAs to treat cancer. Our main focus is currently on ovarian cancer.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?
A better understanding of how biology works. We are using both experimental and informatics tools to study complex systems. We hope to eventually use this knowledge to positively impact the treatment of cancer. I want to make discoveries and understand how things work. If I cure a disease in the process, that will be an added benefit – and a great one, no doubt about it.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus and beyond?
I started a very productive collaboration on ovarian cancer with Ernst Lengyel, MD, PhD, when I was still at the University of Chicago. We are in the process of expanding this collaboration and including other investigators like Kay Macleod, PhD, from the University of Chicago, and Navdeep Chandel, PhD, and Chad Mirkin, PhD, at Northwestern.

When did you begin your research regarding apoptosis?
When I was exposed to apoptosis the first time I really had not heard of it, which is no surprise because at the time virtually no one had. That was in ’92. There was about one publication on apoptosis per year, and then after I was done with my time at Heidelberg, it was 1,000 publications a month.

At the time, biology was viewed basically in two different ways, and that was cell growth and senescence. The ’80s was the decade of the cell cycle. We learned so much about how cells divide, how they proliferate. Cancer was viewed as a disease of uncontrolled growth and all conventional cancer therapy that we use to this day was discovered by trying to interfere with that uncontrolled growth. Nobody ever considered that there would be a mechanism of cell death that’s physiologically important.

My seminal finding, which was made in ’95-96, was the discovery of a key gene that at the time was viewed to have only one function, and that was to induce cell death. This caused a dramatic shift. Having a loaded gun inside a cell was not even considered because it was viewed as too complicated to control and way too dangerous. If all our cells are loaded with killer molecules, how could we possibly survive? What was underestimated is that this is exactly what you need in order to not get cancer all the time. You want to kill off cells rather than running the risk of having them transform into a cancer.

So that was the big shift at the time in the ’90s, when everyone became aware of cell death. The gene we discovered is called caspase-8. I and my group at Heidelberg helped to identify and clone it. It turned out to be a key component in this process. I think it was the third most-cited paper worldwide the following year, so it was huge.

What do you think are some of the fundamental ingredients to success in science?
What I teach my students and postdocs, and what you need to learn in order to be successful, is multitasking. You need to be able to follow three or four projects in parallel, and every one with the same concentration, dedication, and a lot of work. And then if only one of them comes out the way you predicted it, well, then you are lucky. But you would have never found it without trying it.

What other areas of science interest you?
I am very much interested in science philosophy. People have been thinking about this now for 50 years and it hasn’t really changed. You read a book from these people in the ’60s and then you realize at the end that it’s the same, it’s very simple. It’s not so much about science, it’s about people. It’s how we think, how we work, how we act, how we plan, and ambition and all of the driving forces. All of that is something that will never change and that’s what’s shaping the course of science to a large extent.