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Grantee Spotlight: Martina Buck

Martina Buck, Ph.D.

Assistant Adjunct Professor, Medicine
Tumor Growth, Invasion & Metastasis Program
UCSD Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center
200 W. Arbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92103-9001
phone: (619) 543-6222

With ARRA funding, Dr. Martina Buck’s Challenge grant is focusing on the development of a new drug which will reverse severe liver damage, allowing patients with liver fibrosis to have normal and fully functional livers again. Liver fibrosis is a disease process of excessive accumulation of proteins including collagen which can result in cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, and portal hypertension, often requiring liver transplantation.

Dr. Buck’s research is based on the belief that a particular chemical pathway known as the RSK-C/EBP beta phosphorylation pathway leads to scar formation in the liver. If this pathway can be blocked or inhibited, further liver damage will not occur. If successful in discovering a new drug, Dr. Buck is hoping that her research will lead to FDA phase I and II clinical studies of a drug to treat patients with chronic liver diseases with three years.

She first emerged on the science scene in 2001 when she identified a protein segment and associated mechanism underlying the excess fibrous tissue growth that can lead to liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. As the recipient of an NCI Career Development Award (K22) from the NCI’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, she was able to demonstrate that inhibiting the progression of liver fibrosis, the development of primary liver cancer decreases. Her discovery was published in the journal Molecular Cell, and she has been a passionate researcher in liver cancer ever since.

Dr. Buck “would like to develop treatments for liver cirrhosis and Hepatitis C and help implement nanotechnology - the study that deals with things smaller than 100 nanometers and manipulation of individual molecules - to bring medical testing and diagnosis to those patients who are without it now.”

Dr. Buck credits The Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) with helping to advance her scientific career. “CRCHD supported me financially and sheltered me from the ravishes of academic financial crisis,” said Buck. “Obtaining grants is still very difficult for junior faculty and the challenges of getting full faculty employment are tremendous,” she added.

CRCHD also introduced her to a network of junior scientists from diverse backgrounds going through the same things she experiences now. “Sometimes a sympathetic ear is what keeps you going,” she said.

Born in Stillwater Oklahoma, Dr. Martina Buck, PhD, is a Native American Indian. Her mother is a Blackfoot Indian, and her father is from the Cherokee Nation. When she was 18 months old, her father, an oil engineer moved the family to Libya. From there she grew up in places like Venezuela, Iran, Guatemala, Jakarta, Borneo, and Singapore.

Experiencing diverse cultures early in life strongly influenced her viewpoint on cancer health disparities. During her childhood and teenage years, she began to understand and appreciate Hispanic and Asian cultures in addition to her own Native American one. Upon her return to the United States as a young adult, she realized discrimination exists, and became acutely aware of the underserved in this country.

“The poor, minorities, and the uninsured in this country exist in a twilight zone of health care,” she says. “They do not have access to standardized medicine, preventive medicine, vaccines and medication…to have individuals in this country without access to care is reprehensible.”

Dr. Buck graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Microbiology in 1987 and her doctorate degree in biomedical sciences in 1996, from the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). She completed her post doctorate fellowship in molecular biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1997.

Dr. Buck has written more than 54 articles and abstracts in scientific and medical publications and written four book chapters on liver cancer and liver disease. She is the recipient of more than 21 scientific awards from the Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship award 1990-1993 to the National Cancer Institute’s Howard Temin Research Awards from 2000-2008.

Currently she is receiving support for six NIH research grants and hopes to receive grant funding soon from one more NIH grant on the Prevention of Chronic Liver Disease in Urban American Indians.

Updated: 07/08/11