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Learning from failure

“Nothing ever works the first time,” says Susan Bane, professor of organic and biological chemistry. “But I learn something from everything that fails.”

Failures become Bane’s building blocks – a foundation of sorts – for her next attempt at understanding. “We back up to understand,” she says. “We make something simpler by starting with something that’s already known and then going back to the bigger system.”

Bane’s research interests are in chemical biology – the study of chemistry that underlies all biological structure and processes.  She admits to being motivated by “wanting to know the answer” enough to put up with getting there, and says that’s why her research is all about problem solving. It’s also about drugs that fight cancer.

For her research into cancer drugs that work well on a molecular level, Bane continually asks, “How does the molecule work when it gets to the cell? If it doesn’t work, it’s not worth anything. We don’t ever make something just to put it on a shelf. We want to be able to use it.”

Getting to that useable point takes many attempts and lots of problem solving, says Bane. “In order to get there, it has to be formulated, metabolized, distributed… For example, by understanding what happens at the cellular level for some of these drugs that have particular side effects, maybe we can cut down on those side effects.

“There aren’t a lot of slam dunks. We work in increments,” she says, “because there are many variables when working with humans, but we try to do translational research that takes it from the lab to the patient.”

One part of this process might be to look at using an approved drug in a different way. “A number of drugs have been developed as a result of looking at reformulation, the regimen used, the combination with other drugs or the interval at which it is taken,” says Bane, pointing to Taxol as an example. Originally used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, it’s now used to treat many types of cancer and is also used to cover some stents used for cardiac care because it can prohibit cells from growing around the stent.

Bane will continue to fail in order to understand, and will continue to bring that same philosophy to the classroom and her students. She marries her interest in drug research with classroom instruction as well. “It’s about things that are relevant,” she says, “and I wouldn’t be happy here if I didn’t teach, too.”


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Last Updated: 11/24/09