Dr. Vince Luca is an Assistant Member in the Department of Drug Discovery and Member of the Chemical Biology & Molecular Medicine Program. His lab studies how cell surface receptors sense the environment and transduce signals. As a general strategy, they use x-ray crystallography and other structural biology techniques to visualize the interactions between receptors and their ligands. By “seeing” these complexes at the atomic scale, they can determine how biophysical parameters such as docking geometry and surface chemistry regulate downstream signaling. They then take advantage of this high-resolution structural information to inform the design of biologics that modulate receptor function for various biomedical applications. At the moment the main focus is on understanding signal transduction in the Notch pathway, however, the Luca Lab is actively expanding its research program to encompass receptor systems important for immune regulation, tissue organization, and cellular waste disposal.
How did you choose cancer research as a career? When did your interest in science begin?
I have always preferred to study biology “from the bottom up” to understand how individual molecules control complex cellular behaviors, and this mindset led me to pursue a PhD in biophysics. My career in cancer research began later on when I developed a fascination for the ability of immune cells to distinguish friend from foe by identifying tiny differences at an atomic scale. It became clear to me that manipulating these basic chemical events could pave the way to treat cancer and many other diseases that thrive through evasion of the immune system. I had a great biology teacher in high school actually, Randy McGonegal. I’ve always been a visual person and maybe that generated my interest in structural biology but Randy would always draw these elaborate murals on the whiteboard and he would teach as he expanded on the drawing. It really made everything seem more accessible and it got me excited about this concept that biology was really made up of these little nano machines that you can take apart and rebuild to understand how everything works piece by piece.
Is there anyone at Moffitt who inspires you?
I admire many people here but in terms of the senior faculty members; I look up to Dr. John Cleveland a lot. He’s trying to revamp a lot of things in research and it’s a great task to take on when you’re coming at it from the top down. There are also many faculty members who are involved in charitable causes like, Shari Pilon Thomas and her involvement in Swim Across America, and Eric Lau who does a lot of outreach. It’s really inspiring to see faculty deeply engaged in charitable causes. In the past, I have participated in science outreach to get high school students and underprivileged students to show them they can work in a lab and get exposed to science when they otherwise may not be.
How long have you been at Moffitt and was there anything in particular that drew you to Moffitt?
It’s almost my one-year anniversary. Prior to that, I was at Stanford as a postdoctoral fellow. I have always worked in very basic research environments and I was always excited about the prospect of the crossover between the types of basic protein engineering and biochemistry that we’re doing in the lab with people who actually treat patients and can put these things in the clinic which a lot of people speculate that they’re going to do in their grants but don’t really get there. This was a great opportunity to actually get into that arena as someone who traditionally only worked on molecules and non-patients.
You were recently awarded the prestigious Rita Allen Award. Can you talk about the research that will be funded by this grant?
Rita Allen is a great foundation for young researchers because they require that your proposal is outside the realm of your regular research. The funding is allowing me to develop new classes of molecules of protein biologics which are a type of therapeutic that can reprogram proteins in the cell membrane called transmembrane ubiquitin ligases.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
I would have to say my biggest inspirations are my parents. Both my mother and father were the first in their families to obtain college degrees, and because of this they were able to create an amazingly supportive environment in which I could pursue my dreams. Although they did not know much about biology, they did everything they possibly could to set me on the right course to become a successful scientist.
What is your most memorable achievement, professional or personal?
My most memorable professional achievement was the publication of my postdoctoral work in the journal Science. For me as a postdoc, anytime your project works or you’re publishing data, you’re happy. In this case, writing this paper was really an exercise in overcoming a mental obstacle. As a postdoc, you see these papers get published in journals like Science and Nature, and you think it will be impossible for your work to get published in those journals. But I realized the same amount of work goes into solving problems that make a major advancement in a field, as it does to solve smaller problems. It was a great achievement to see those molecules interacting for the first time, but at the same time, publishing the paper brought down a barrier in my thought process, and now it doesn’t seem like it was so far away to publish research after that.
What advice would you give to young researchers who may be struggling to publish?
I would advise them to keep a lot of irons in the fire. Before I published, I unsuccessfully worked on 5 or 6 other projects simultaneously. As a researcher, you want to ensure that you have a few projects going at the same time so you don’t get stuck on something that may have a variable you can’t get through.
Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?
I would like to give a shout out to my lab. It’s amazing to have these people who are passionate about science working with me. I feel this sense of pride because of them and that they’re here of their own volition hard at work.