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Former CRCHD Grantee John Carethers Elected to Institute of Medicine

John Carethers, M.D.
John Carethers, M.D.

Former CRCHD grantee (and current NCI grantee) John M. Carethers, M.D., has been bestowed with one of the highest honors in the field of medicine. During the recent 2012 Institute of Medicine (IOM) Annual meeting, he was among the 70 newly elected members to the IOM of the National Academies, an honor given to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.

Carethers, a gastroenterologist lauded for groundbreaking discoveries in colon cancer, is currently the John G. Searle Professor and Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan (UM), and oversees approximately 700 faculty and 300 trainees in their research, clinical, and teaching roles.

Prior to joining UM in 2009, Carethers was Chief of the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine's Division of Gastroenterology and Founding Director of the university's Digestive Disease Research Development Center. He continues to holds an appointment at UCSD as Adjunct Professor. In 2006, he was appointed to the U.S. Congressional Commission for Digestive Diseases.

Carethers' research interests include familial cancer and polyposis syndromes, tumor genetics and mechanisms of tumor progression, and colorectal cancer disparities in African Americans. This past fall, he was awarded a five-year NCI UO1 grant to examine inflammatory differentiation of colorectal cancers among African Americans. "It was the CRCHD U54 Grant (a San Diego State University/UCSD Moores Comprehensive Cancer Center Partnership grant) that made our U01 possible," says Carethers. "The U54 was a stepping-stone toward the U01 grant."

For reasons that are still unclear, colorectal cancers present at more advanced stages and result in higher mortality among African Americans. There is growing evidence that inflammation and cancer development are linked, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract. "We are slowly uncovering the molecular mechanisms associated with inflammation that drive these cancers," says Carethers. "They range from the type of immune cells to the substances that they release, which evidence now shows has an impact on key signaling pathways involved in cancer pathogenesis." His studies show a link between inflammation and defective DNA repair, and this process seems to be overrepresented in colon cancers among African Americans.

Carethers' research also aims to determine the type of immune cells associated with two biomarkers that are prevalent in African American colorectal cancer tumors that lead to lower survival. His goal is to discover how these biomarkers might attract the immune cells into the tumor—a finding that might be replicated to improve patient survival.

Carethers embraces education and believes it can be endlessly rewarding and fun. He attributes the value he places on education to his parents. His father, an important role model, was the only African American student in his college, and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. Growing up in Detroit, the third youngest of 12 children, his parents made it clear to all of their children that getting an education was key if they wanted to be successful in life. "They sacrificed a lot to get us educated," he says. They inspired each of their children to find after-school jobs so they could earn money and pursue a college degree.

Carethers knew he wanted to be a doctor since the age of seven. The catalyst—a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica that his parents purchased. He was given the first volume—topics beginning with the letter "A"—to study. He remembers being fascinated when he came upon the subject of Anatomy. That fascination never left him.

When Carethers graduated from college in 1985 with a B.S. in biological sciences, he had his choice of going to medical school at Harvard or Howard University. He chose neither one. Instead, Carethers picked a medical school closer to home—at Wayne State University—based on advice, cost, and the role model he saw in the dean of medical admissions. He says that decision, based on gut instinct, was one of the best decisions he ever made. In 1989, he earned his M.D. with high distinction.

Early on in medical school, Carethers considered various career options, including pediatric surgery, ophthalmology, and orthopedics. But a two-week bout of the chicken pox simultaneously interrupted his surgical rotation and led to a shift in his thinking. "I thought about it and I felt the real diagnosticians are the internists," he said. "That was what interested me." It was during his residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital that Carethers decided he would pursue gastroenterology and specialize in colon cancer. He completed his fellowship in gastroenterology at UM Hospitals.

Carethers has come a long way since reading volume 1 of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He is the author of more than 125 scientific articles, a member of numerous medical associations, and the recipient of many grants and awards. But he hasn't forgotten the support and guidance he received from his parents and faculty that helped him get to where he is today.

"One of my goals in life is to see that every young person, including minorities and the disadvantaged, has an opportunity to succeed in school," says Carethers. "If someone never has the opportunity, they have no idea what they're missing. Some people never achieve because they never got the opportunity." Creating ways to inspire young, motivated students is a priority for Carethers. His dedication led to his receiving the UCSD School of Medicine Vice Chancellor's Award for Mentoring Excellence in 2006, in addition to many awards for teaching excellence.

Updated: 01/10/14