Putting the "super" in super-mom!
Dino Morvinski balances parenting with cutting-edge cancer research
Dinorah "Dino" Friedmann-Morvinski is a telenovelawatching, cake-baking mother of three who also happens to be working on a cure for brain cancer.
Morvinski, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute, shrugs off her stereotype-busting life. "I'm just normal," she says. Despite her disclaimer, quite a few people find her ability to juggle competing demands on her time extraordinary. "I'm amazed that anyone with three young children can be so focused and energetic," says her mentor, Salk professor Inder Verma.
Verma and Morvinski recently published a paper in Science describing their fundamental discovery about glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an aggressive cancer with an extremely poor prognosis. The disease was named for the brain's glia cells, non-neuronal brain cells that are essential for brain health.
Research into genetics, however, has begun to suggest that cancers may not always originate from the types of cells for which they are named. GBM had already been found to originate from neural stem cells, immature cells that could develop into any type of cells in the brain. That was a hint that the glia/glioblastoma assumption needed to be re-examined. Morvinski, along with Verma, holder of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science, decided to confirm whether GBM truly did start in glia cells.
Morvinski's research was greatly aided by conversations with Fred "Rusty" Gage, who holds the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Disease and who has done pioneering research on neural stem cells, overturning the conventional wisdom that the brain did not grow new cells.
"That's the wonderful thing about Salk—everything is open," says Morvinski. "You have someone who's a giant in his field, and all you have to do is knock on his door. It's incredible that we have this community." Morvinski found GBM in glia, as well as in neural stem cells, but unexpectedly, also in mature adult neurons. Speaking together, the scientists realized they'd been looking at only part of a far bigger idea. They wondered, says Morvinski, "if glia, neural stem cells, and mature neurons can all be the cell of origin—maybe any cell in the brain could be?"
More than a year's worth of experiments later, they worked out the complete story. Glioblastomas can originate when a mature cell, such as a neuron or a glial cell, genetically sets itself back to the state of a stem cell, as part of the transformation process to become a cancer cell. Unlike mature cells, in this state cells can proliferate—growing wild as tumors.
The team's results explain why tumors recur. It isn't merely that a surgeon left behind some malignant tissue or that chemotherapy wasn't fully effective. The profound problem is that apparently transformed and differentiated cells contain within themselves the genetic trigger to revert to proliferating cells.
"What it tells us is that it's not just a question of better targeting chemotherapies, but of discovering what is it that makes a cancer cell revert to a stem cell—like state and block that," says Morvinski. She and her colleagues are currently performing a new series of experiments to find the answer.
Altogether it took nearly four years to produce the Science paper, an example of the tenacious patience required for world-class science—and that patience is a good explanation for why science is not incompatible with Morvinski's other job as a mother of three children under the age of 11.
Granted, she admits, it isn't easy. She copes by being extremely organized. "When you know you have only nine hours, you have to be focused," she says. "You lay out your experiments, and you know whom you need to question." Another important factor is the flexibility that Verma's lab offers, as well as the scientific and technical support in his laboratory and the Salk Institute.
But there's something else that contributes to balance. "Not everything can be science," she says. "I also need my own Dino time. I love baking cakes for my kids, and I also love watching Argentinian telenovelas. My friends say, 'You'll burn your neurons watching those things!' I say, 'I just need an hour where I don't need to use my brain!'"
Most importantly, she emphasizes, she and her husband Coby fully support each other. "When you have kids and you want to do science, you need a 50 percent partner– that's my secret," she says. "It's not that I do everything alone!"
They met in Israel, after Dino left her native Uruguay, where she'd received one of the country's first degrees in biochemistry. "Uruguay is still the third world for science; to advance you have to go abroad," she says. "I studied at the Weizmann Institute, where coincidentally, Inder had also trained."
They take turns with their children and even with their careers. Originally a telecommunications engineer, Coby moved to America for Dino's career, and now she's staying in America longer than originally planned while he finishes his Ph.D. in business administration at UCSD's Rady School of Management. They plan to return to Israel, where she already has professorship offers, to raise their family.
"I never expected I would wind up working in brain cancer," she says. "But I love what I do, and if you ask the right questions, everything is open to you—and that's what science is—learning to ask the right questions. You just need the freedom to pursue the answers. Inder gave me that freedom in his lab, and there's no limit."