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Cancer Research Center Renamed for Distinguished Chemist and Former Director

Merrill J. Christensen

Merrill J. Christensen

The College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and the College of Life Sciences recently announced the renaming of the BYU Cancer Research Center to “The Simmons Center for Cancer Research.” This name change comes as Dr. Daniel L. Simmons steps down as director of the center after seventeen years of service.

Simmons earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from BYU in 1978 and 1980, respectively. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1986. Following his doctoral work, Simmons worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University until 1989, following which Simmons joined the BYU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as a professor. He became the director of the Cancer Research Center in 1997. He is the discoverer of the COX-2 enzyme, which led to the development of several prescription painkillers, the first being Celebrex, which is often used to treat arthritis pain.

Replacing Simmons as director is Merrill J. Christensen of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science, who previously served as associate director, a position Steven L. Castle of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will now fill.

“I hope to see the current programs expand and grow under the inspired new leadership,” Simmons said. “I think we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what BYU can contribute to this important field.”

In 1971, President Harold B. Lee made a prophetic statement at the inauguration of BYU President Dallin H. Oaks that would later serve as a guide for the establishment of the Cancer Research Center.

“We would hope that you would give to students of this institution the vision of possibility that the Eyring Science Center (where the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was then housed) could make a significant contribution to the discovery of a cure for cancer—that treacherous disease which took the life of the great scholar, Dr. Carl Eyring, after whom that building was named,” President Lee said.

The BYU Cancer Research Center was established in 1977 as a joint venture between the Department of Biology, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Dr. Roland K. Robins, a prominent medicinal chemist and cancer researcher, served as the first director.

The center is committed to giving students the opportunity to become directly involved in cancer research and the search for a cure. In 1997, Simmons initiated the Cancer Research Center’s fellowship program, which has since provided more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students with funding for cancer research.

Currently, the center is composed of distinguished professors and researchers from chemistry and biochemistry, chemical engineering, integrative biology, nutrition, health sciences, microbiology and molecular biology, dietetics and food science, statistics, and physiology and developmental biology. Students have the opportunity to study under these professors as they research possible causes and treatments for cancer.

“The [Simmons Center for Cancer Research] will continue to be a ‘student-centric’ organization,” Christensen said. “As money is made available, we would hope to be able to give support to capable and deserving students year-round to do projects directly related to some aspect of cancer causation, epidemiology, prevention, diagnosis, or treatment.”

Christensen received a BS in nutritional science with a minor in chemistry from BYU and a PhD in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science at BYU in 1982. To further his training in cancer research, Christensen took leave to work in oncology and molecular biology at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He then returned to BYU.

From 2005 to 2010 Christensen served as a member of the Chemo/Dietary Prevention of Cancer Study Section of the National Cancer Institute. He has been awarded the College Creative Achievement Award, a College Professorship, the John A. Widtsoe Fellowship, and, in August 2014, the Abraham O. Smoot Citizenship Award. Christensen’s current research focuses on the essential trace element selenium, on compounds found in soy, and on the molecular mechanisms for their protective effects, individually and in combination, against prostate cancer.

“I am very grateful to be working with such capable and conscientious people,” he said. “I am sobered by the responsibility . . . but also excited and motivated by the challenge and possibilities.”

Steven L. Castle

Steven L. Castle

Steven L. Castle, who will serve as associate director, has been a member of the Cancer Research Center since 2004. His current research is in the synthesis of natural products and related structural analogues that possess anticancer activity or other medicinal properties.

“I am honored and excited to receive this opportunity to help lead the [Simmons Center for Cancer Research],” Castle said. “I will work to ensure that the center continues to fulfill its mission of providing opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in high-quality basic research related to cancer.”

Castle earned a BS with honors in chemistry from BYU and a PhD in chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Following graduation, he worked as a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. Castle joined the BYU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 2002.

“By training the next generation of cancer researchers and enabling fundamental discoveries that help us understand and treat this terrible disease, the center plays a critical role in the BYU community,” Castle said.

By Meg Monk Posted on