Biology Grad Leads Renowned Cancer Research Lab
His Focus on Helping Cancer Patients Has Brought Success, Satisfaction
By: Loree Chase-Waite
When Nathan Wall ’95 lowers his eyes to the microscope at his cancer research lab in Loma Linda, Calif., he views things through both his eyes and his heart.
With his eyes, Wall sees cancer cells—the tiny, complex structures that dictate the course of the disease.
And with his heart, Wall sees people—family members and friends whose lives have been profoundly affected by cancer.
It’s a mix of the two—the science and the stories—that daily inspires Wall to apply his research expertise toward finding more precise tests and effective treatments for cancer.
After all, “we are all being touched by cancer in one way or another,” Wall says.
After graduating from Walla Walla University in 1991 and then in 1995 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology respectively, Wall continued on to earn a doctorate in cancer biology from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Mich. He then completed post-doctoral fellowships at Yale University and Harvard Medical School before being recruited by Loma Linda University. To prepare for managing the future careers and salaries of the students and post-docs that would work for him and the millions of dollars that would flow through his lab, Wall earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif.
Degrees aside, it’s the research and teaching to benefit others that matters most to Wall.
At Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Wall coordinates the Biochemistry Graduate Program and teaches biochemistry, the biology of cancer, and other courses. He also leads a team of cancer researchers who have spent years studying Survivin, a gene and protein that aids in human development and affects the progression of cancer.
“We are especially interested in how the tumor release of Survivin not only causes cancer cells to be more aggressive and damaging, but whether Survivin could be used as a means to detect the growth of tumors earlier and be an adequate target for therapy,” Wall says. “Early detection allows treatment to begin when the chances for cure are the highest.”
Here we catch up with Wall and ask him about his research, memories of WWU, and other news.
What is it about Survivin that piqued your interest in the first place?
As a graduate student, I was interested in why cancer cells, after they are treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, don’t die like normal cells do. In fact, in the lab, when I treat cancer cells with toxins that are designed to kill them, the cells respond by turning on certain genes, turning off other genes, and living on, perhaps even better than before treatment.
It was at Yale University, in the laboratory that first found and described Survivin, where I first noticed that Survivin was not just in cancer cells, but also unexpectedly outside, in the medium I had just grown the cancer cells in.
Survivin is found in virtually all human cancers but not in normal cells (except in embryos during the first few days of development). I therefore believed, and still do, that Survivin is very important to study, both for early detection of cancer and for therapeutic targeting.
As you’ve continued your research, what advances have you made?
My team and I are the first group to demonstrate that cancer cells don’t just produce Survivin; they secrete it. Surrounding tumor cells and immune cells then take up the Survivin, and that affects the overall response of the cancer to treatment.
Our research has also confirmed that Survivin:
* Increases cancer cell growth and makes tumors more likely to metastasize, or spread.
* Makes cancer cells more resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
* Causes patients’ immune systems to be less helpful in recognizing tumors and attacking them.
We have observed these phenomena in all the cancers we have evaluated to date: pancreatic, prostate, breast, lung, bone, brain, cervical, leukemia, and lymphoma.
Editor’s note: Wall has more than 40 published studies in medical journals and several other studies in line for publication. He has written two chapters for cancer textbooks, edited medical journal articles, and presented research findings around the world at such notable conferences as the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Society for Hematologists, and the Fifth World Congress on Advances in Oncology.
Is Survivin currently used to diagnose cancer?
Yes. In part of a breast cancer diagnostic test called Oncotype DX, Survivin and 20 other genes in a tumor sample are evaluated to see how they are expressed or how active they are. The results help indicate how likely it is that the cancer will return and what the chances are that the patient will benefit from adding chemotherapy to other treatments.
That said, Survivin in this test is not being used predictively. In fact, Oncotype DX testing comes after screening (like mammograms and physical exams), after diagnosis (like biopsies and imaging tests), after definitive diagnosis (like outlining the tumor size and stage), after surgery (like lumpectomy and mastectomy) and before making other treatment decisions.
We think that testing for Survivin outside of the cancer cell—in the urine or blood, for instance—could possibly yield clues about the presence of cancer sooner than if we wait to evaluate tumor samples. Ultimately, that could result in hundreds of thousands of patients that would be treated earlier and would perhaps not suffer and die as a result of their disease.
What are some of your recent findings and goals?
We have been trying to determine if certain cancers secrete more Survivin than others. Recently we have found that there is a disparity in the amount of secreted Survivin among differing ethnicities. Patients who are Black release more Survivin than do their Hispanic or Caucasian counterparts.
We believe that by either reducing the ability of Survivin to be released from cancer cells, or by using antibodies against it, we may be able to make current treatments more effective.
Thinking back to your time at WWU, what are some of your favorite memories?
My favorite memories are of the many friends I made there and the experiences we shared, especially my three roommates who I lived with on Puff Lane in College Place.
However, coming from a small Seventh-day Adventist church family in Montana, it is my experience with church at WWU that I will never forget. During my earliest weeks on campus, I was not prepared for the large church atmosphere. I would go and feel very small and alone at times. But then I got to know that the McCloskeys always sat in one area, the Dickinsons another, and the Rigbys another, and so on.
If I didn’t happen to meet up with peers I knew at church, I always had my faculty. And if they saw me, I was always treated as family. I remember Biology Club events where we would spend days turning Rigby Hall into a miniature golf course, go tubing in the Blue Mountains, or go to Rosario Beach.
Also, as a master’s student, we would volunteer to do marine-based outdoor education for academy science classes at Rosario Beach. My graduate student colleagues and I would dive to collect the organisms that we needed to bring back to the sea water tanks in the Ernest Booth labs. On these weekends, we were teachers, researchers, and ambassadors of WWU.
Do certain WWU professors stand out in your memory?
There are so many. I will always love and respect my mentors in biology, but I have a special place in my mind for everyone who worked to mold me into who I am today. Those people include: Terrie Aamodt, Dan Lamberton, Gordon Hare, Doug Clark, Ernest Bursey, Lucille Knapp, Kristy Guldhammer, Tim Windemuth, and my SCUBA instructor Gene Bruns.
Bruns taught me a very valuable lesson that I teach all of my own students. He would say, “Plan your dive, and then dive your plan.” I have modified that a little in that I tell my students to plan their experience, and then experience their plan and graduate school will be a success.
As a freshman biology major, my adviser was Joe Galusha. He encouraged me from the start to pursue a career in academia. And he also took me to Protection Island (in northwest Washington state) and taught me about scientific patience. I also have Galusha to thank for teaching me how to sing the mating call of a Glaucous-winged gull. Everyone should learn how to do this. Why, I don’t know—it’s just fun!
After Galusha moved briefly from Washington to Loma Linda, I became the ward of Don Rigby who helped me believe that a person could read the journal Science from cover to cover and understand virtually every article.
I recall Al Grable who faced every day with the joy of Jesus Christ in his heart. He took me to hunt for scorpions in the Columbia/Snake River sand dunes with a black light. Though he was not my academic adviser, he taught me about being a good mentor.
I am thankful to Larry McCloskey for giving me Rosario, SCUBA, and an appreciation for the vast unknown. It was McCloskey who taught that in order to truly know the organism you study you must first ingest it. On occasion with my friends and fellow graduate students, we would—for obvious hero status, shock value, and fun—consume a sea anemone. Their medium, I have to say, is a bit salty and less than appetizing.
I am also extremely grateful to Susan Dixon for driving to Pendleton almost every week for a year with me, helping me on my senior project at the Agricultural Research Station. It was also Dixon who encouraged me to come back to WWU for my master’s degree and to stay on and teach while I prepared to apply to graduate school.
I think of David Cowles as my marine biology instructor and dive buddy at Rosario. While on a research dive there, we surfaced to have orcas all around us. It was a magical, heavenly, inspiring dive that changed my life.
Often I think of Scott Ligman and Jim Nestler and their wives who opened their homes to me and adopted me as part of their families. I hope to think that they helped me learn how to have healthy and respectful relationships with students while providing just enough of a feel of home for the hard times to be easier and the good times to be better.
Finally, it was Joan Redd who gave me professional mentoring in a style that would be followed up in my doctoral program. She gave me enough room to really explore and ask the questions that convinced me to pursue a life of cancer research. She and I continue to communicate to this day and talk about science and life.
I wish I could name all the rest of my faculty at WWU, as I had support in every department from chemistry to religion to English and P.E.
Can you tell us about your family?
My wife Jill (Schoepflin) is a pediatric occupational therapist but is taking a sabbatical, so to speak, from her profession to be the foreman of a herd of children who live in our house. She and I have been blessed to adopt five wonderful children: Jose (15), Victoria (12), Johnny (10), April (5), and Valerie (4).
At first Jill and I planned on just adopting two or three children, but now we are living by the motto “the more the merrier.” It is by the grace of God and a grand sense of humor that we get by. Jill and I really work as a team. When the balls we are juggling get heavy and I start to drop them, she helps me keep them in the air and vice versa.
We enjoy going to the beach and museums and spending time with friends and family. On Sabbath afternoons, we like to go to Joshua Tree National Park here in southern California and climb the boulders.
What are your guiding rules—your reasons for doing what you do?
Most important is not what I do, have done or hope to do, but rather the spirit in which I do it.
One day our children will go out into the world and make it a better place. That’s why Jill and I decided to have them join our family—we pray our influence on them is positive.
In teaching, my main goal is for my students to never forget why they wanted to go to graduate school or medical school in the first place. I tell them that if they focus on themselves, the research will more likely be harder, the grants fewer, their security less guaranteed, and they won’t be as likely to enjoy the experience. But if they instead focus on the people they hope to influence—cancer patients—it’s more likely that their work will be a success, their papers will be published, their grants funded, their future jobs secure, and that they will enjoy the experience.
Ultimately, I want cancer patients to know that someone is working feverishly toward a cure that could one day change their lives, and the lives of their families, forever.