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Former NIEHS Scientist to Direct Gynecologic Oncology Research at Michigan State

By Eddy Ball
May 2009

A photograph of John Risinger.
Risinger followed an alternative career path that bypassed the customary postdoctoral fellowship and found himself with Barrett, he said, “the beneficiary of a very forward-thinking guy.” (Photo courtesy of Geri Kelly and the MSU College of Human Medicine)

A photograph of Carl Barrett.
Former NIEHS Scientific Director Carl Barrett (Archive photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Risinger, Ph.D., who began his career as a biologist at NIEHS in 1989, is the new director of Gynecologic Oncology Research at the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Human Medicine community-based program in Grand Rapids, Mich. The MSU program works in conjunction with Spectrum Health and the Van Andel Institute. Risinger will begin his work building a laboratory research team that will eventually move to facilities at the Van Andel Institute.

Spectrum Health Executive Vice President Matt Van Vranken described the appointments of “highly acclaimed senior investigators” Risinger and colleague Jack Lipton, Ph.D., as “the latest step in building a research and health care hub in West Michigan.” Risinger said of his new position, "We really want to take my program to another level, where we will try to integrate things we see in the lab with problems we see in patients and then try to find some solutions."

Risinger joined MSU ( NIEHS following two-and-one-half years as director of the women's cancer program at the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute at Memorial University Medical Center (MUMC) in Savannah, Ga. — a two-state healthcare organization serving a 35-county area in southeast Georgia and southern South Carolina. While he was at MUMC, Risinger was principal investigator on the Obesity and Cancer Program project, which was funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

During his ten years at NIEHS, Risinger worked with former Scientific Director J. Carl Barrett, Ph.D., as a biologist and later as a staff scientist. In 1997, he completed his doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Molecular Biology and Genetics while working full time at the Institute. When Barrett left NIEHS to work in the Laboratory of Biosystems in the Cancer Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Risinger turned down an offer from Duke University and followed his mentor to NCI.

Risinger described his time at NIEHS as “far and away my best experience in science” and a “truly unbelievable experience.” He was working within the Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis led by Barrett in the mid-nineties when discovery of the BRCA1 gene linked to breast cancer brought NIEHS Principal Investigator Roger Wiseman, Ph.D., and Andrew Futreal, Ph.D. — and the young Institute — national fame.

Risinger was also on hand when another Barrett-led team identified, isolated and cloned the KAI1 gene that was able to suppress the spread of prostate cancer in animals. At the same time, Risinger and colleagues Tom Kunkel, Ph.D., and Asad Umar, Ph.D., were working on identification and understanding the role of mismatch repair genes in cancers. All of this together created an exciting atmosphere.

Risinger is a modest man, who attributes much of his meteoric rise in the field of gynecologic oncology to serendipity. Working with Barrett and other mentors, such as Principal Investigators Kunkel and Wiseman, the young scientist juggled a full-time job and a rigorous Ph.D. program. Choosing to stay with Barrett instead of pursuing the usual postdoctoral fellowship track, Risinger immersed himself in cancer research and developed a network with leading figures in the field, including gynecologic oncologists at Walter Reed Medical Center, which he credits with helping him combine bench science with clinical research in primary care settings.

Looking back, Risinger is amazed by the way his career has unfolded. “I could easily have gotten stuck in a non-productive postdoctoral experience,” he said, “but I was able to take advantage of the latitude Carl enjoyed as scientific director.” When he was at NIEHS in the mid-nineties, he recalled, “I would never have guessed where I would be today.”

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