Merkel Cell Carcinoma Researcher Dr. Nick Salisbury named Brave Fellow

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Rare skin cancer is focus of work by Fred Hutch scientist who will receive support honoring runner Gabe Grunewald.

Dr. Nick Salisbury

Dr. Nick Salisbury

Growing up in Oxford, England, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nick Salisbury became fascinated with understanding "why things are" from a scientific lens.

“Science is about understanding the way the world is and trying to come up with explanations,” he said. “And then you can make predictions about what will happen in the future.”

Salisbury was just named the third recipient to receive the Brave Fellowship at Fred Hutch. Funded by Brooks Running on behalf of the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, the goal of the fellowship is to develop scientific leaders who will advocate for a diverse and inclusive biomedical research workforce focused on rare cancer research.

The fellowship will fund Salisbury’s research on Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer caused by the Merkel cell polyomavirus. A quick diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential to help cure this disease.

We sat down with Salisbury, who works in the lab of Dr. Denise Galloway, to learn more about his research, how he got his start in science and what it means to him to be a Brave Fellow. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you tell us about your research project?

My research focuses on Merkel cell carcinoma. It's a rare skin cancer that is caused by the Merkel cell polyomavirus. Denise Galloway, a professor here at Fred Hutch and holder of the Paul Stephanus Memorial Endowed Chair, is a world-renowned expert in viruses that cause cancer.

So, this is really one of the best places to try to understand how this virus — that was discovered just over 15 years ago — causes this rare skin cancer.

What challenges did you overcome to pursue a career in science?

The really big challenge that I encountered was moving from England to the U.S. I finished my Ph.D. in the U.K. and then I decided to do my postdoctoral training in America. I wanted to move abroad since I'd spent my whole life up until that point in the U.K.

I first moved to Boston and was in one lab for just two or three months before the professor I was working with decided to leave academia and take up another position in the biotech industry. He closed down his lab and of course, that was very unexpected and quite scary because when you're an immigrant or you’ve moved to a new country, your visa and your ability to remain in the country is completely dependent on having a job. So, at that point, I was without a job and I needed to find a new lab to continue my postdoctoral training. I was thousands of miles away from home, from my friends, my family and my support network.

I managed to find another lab in Boston and things were going really well for about a year. Then one day the lab just was very abruptly shut down because the institute was carrying out an investigation into previous research misconduct that had happened allegedly many years before I joined. I had walked into another situation blindly not knowing what was happening. And so, again, that lab got shut down. So, it was two years in Boston of like very unproductive research.

Luckily, I was able to meet Dr. Paul Nghiem, who is a fantastic researcher and one of the leading medical doctors in the U.S. for treating Merkel cell carcinoma. Patients come from all over the country to be treated by his team at the UW and the Hutch. He recruited me here to Seattle and that's how my journey at Fred Hutch began.

What next steps in your science does your new Brave Fellowship make possible?

The project that is being funded by the Brave Fellowship was a project that I started just a few months ago looking at the role of a human gene called YAP. We have found that this gene is turned off in Merkel cell carcinoma, and we think that if we can turn it back on, this would be bad for the cancer. We're trying to understand how it works in Merkel cell carcinoma and if we can develop a drug that could have the same effect as turning YAP back on.

This fellowship focuses on two things, to fund research that is focused on rare cancers like Merkel cell carcinoma. It also supports scientists from underrepresented communities within the academic scientific world. I am gay. There are LGBTQ+ scientists, of course, but there aren't that many LGBTQ+ scientists in the higher levels within academic research. I’m grateful that this fellowship is supporting me and I’m hoping to increase representation for LGBTQ+ scientists in the academic world.

It's a really fantastic opportunity, and I hope that I can make great strides in understanding or developing new therapies to treat Merkel cell carcinoma.

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