Cancer Cell Biology

Ralph Sanderson, Ph.D.
– Program Co-Leader

Mary-Ann Bjornsti, Ph.D.
– Program Co-Leader


The overall goals of the Cancer Cell Biology (CCB) Program are to conduct the highest quality basic science research related to the three thematic focus areas of the program, to identify and characterize novel pathways and targets involved in tumorigenesis and metastasis, and to develop inhibitors that interfere with those pathways and targets. To enhance the cancer focus of the Program, thematically aligned recruiting of 13 Faculty has been coordinated with refining of CCB membership to 49 members from UAB (11 departments and 5 schools), Southern Research and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. The CCB program has been highly productive with 412 publications in in the past five years, 25% of which were inter-programmatic and 21% were intra-programmatic.  CCB members are well funded, having $8,624,279 in direct cancer-related, peer-reviewed funding, including $6,628,357 in NIH funding, $3,013,699 of which is from the NCI, and other funding sources totaling $9,642,338 in direct costs ($13,443,865 in total costs).

The diverse scientific endeavors encompassed by CCB program members continue to provide new discoveries with the goal of developing novel therapeutics and driving further clinical investigation. A strong history of investigator-initiated clinical trials at the UAB CCC derives from fundamental research findings, and the CCB program is integral to this undertaking by providing a foundation of innovative basic and pre-clinical cancer research. The overarching goals of the CCB program will be accomplished through the integrated aims of the following themes, which all have strong translational components:

Signal Transduction Pathways: To elucidate the underlying aberrations in signal transduction pathways that promote tumor cell growth, invasion and metastasis, and to investigate the interplay between signaling pathways and cellular responses to developmental and environmental factors.

Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis: To define the molecular mechanisms that regulate tumor progression and cancer cell metastases, and to elucidate how the tumor cell microenvironment regulates tumor-host crosstalk and controls cellular morphology, angiogenesis, osteolysis and response to therapeutic interventions.

Gene Expression and Genome Instability: To understand how alterations in gene expression or the processes that maintain genome stability, either as a consequence of mutation, gene amplification or epigenetic regulation, act to promote tumorigenesis and impact therapeutic responses.

An additional, emerging focus area in CCB, related to the overall CCC strategic plan, is Mitochondria and Cancer Energetics. Given the high rate of obesity within our catchment area, and the increased risk of cancer in this population, strategic recruitment and intra- and inter-programmatic efforts led by CCB members have promoted collaborations on mitochondrial function and related metabolomics, and their relationship to cancer growth and progression.

The translation of basic science investigations made by CCB investigators into pre-clinical and clinical research has been enhanced through innovative initiatives supported by the CCC, including participation with the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) and Disease-oriented working groups (DWGs), pilot funding opportunities through the CCC and SPOREs, the development of new shared resources, facilities and model systems, and the establishment of an infrastructure of meetings and shared resources that promotes intra- and inter-programmatic collaborations.

Click here for a complete list of Cancer Cell Biology Program Members


Mary-Ann Bjornsti, Ph.D., became Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Co-Leader of the Cancer Cell Biology Program in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center in early 2009. Dr. Bjornsti holds the Newman H. Waters Chair of Clinical Pharmacology and serves as Associate Director for Translational Research in the UAB CCC. Dr. Bjornsti is internationally recognized for her work on DNA topoisomerases, SUMO modification and mTOR signaling, and brings considerable expertise in mechanisms of drug action and facilitating the translation of basic science discoveries to the clinic. Her interests complement Dr. Ralph Sanderson’s expertise in tumor microenvironment and metastasis. Both in her capacity as Program Leader and Associate Director for Translational Research, she regularly interacts with members of the Experimental Therapeutics and Neuro-Oncology Programs, investigators in the Breast, Brain, and Pancreatic Cancer SPOREs, and members of Disease Working Groups (DWGs), to enhance intra- and inter-programmatic activities in translational research. She serves on the advisory board for the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) and the Executive Committee of the UAB National Clinical Trial Network (NCTN) Lead Academic Participating Site (LAPS) program.  Dr. Bjornsti has organized numerous national and international meetings, served on editorial and advisory boards, including several NCI Cancer Center external advisory boards, and has served on and chaired several NIH study sections. At UAB, Dr. Bjornsti has been actively recruiting faculty with research interests in cancer and has promoted several initiatives, including the development of a state-of-the-art zebrafish facility, an RNAi screening core facility and a developing a Pharmacokinetic/Pharmacodynamic Shared Resource. Dr. Bjornsti also participates in a UAB CCC recruitment committee, is on the Strategic Oversight Committee for the UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences (GBS) Program, and chairs the GBS Finance Committee.

Ralph Sanderson, Ph.D., UAB Endowed Professor of Cancer Pathobiology, was recruited to UAB in 2006 and became a Co-Leader of the Cancer Cell Biology Program in 2010. Dr. Sanderson is an internationally recognized expert on the biology of heparan sulfate proteoglycans and their role in cancer progression and metastasis.  He has led the field in understanding how the heparan sulfate degrading enzyme heparanase regulates multiple pathways that drive the growth and progression of multiple myeloma.  Mechanistic and pre-clinical studies in his lab recently resulted in a phase I trial of an anti-heparanase drug in myeloma patients.  He has established a collaborative network of myeloma researchers within the CCC that has led to multiple NCI R01 grants and extensive inter- and intra-programmatic funding and publications. Dr. Sanderson has served on numerous study sections, editorial boards and advisory boards of several drug companies. He has been active in recruiting new faculty to the CCC and served as chair of two search committees that recruited three NCI-funded investigators to UAB.  Dr. Sanderson was instrumental in development of the UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences (GBS) Program, a theme-based interdisciplinary training program that was established in 2009. He established and led the Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine theme of the GBS from 2009-2012.

Leadership Activities:

  • Drs. Bjornsti and Sanderson have established weekly meetings of Cancer Cell Biology Program (CCB) membership focused around four separate themes. Dr. Bjornsti directs the Gene Expression and Genome Instability theme and Dr. Sanderson directs the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis theme. Under the direction of Drs. Bjornsti and Sanderson, other CCB faculty lead themes in Cell Signaling and Mitochondria and Cancer Energetics. Meetings are designed to highlight ongoing research within the CCB and to stimulate collaboration and exchange of ideas and introduce cutting edge technology utilized by CCB member labs.
  • The co-leaders are actively involved in the annual Cancer Center Research Retreats and Leadership Retreats.
  • Dr. Bjornsti serves on the advisory board for the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) in the Experimental Therapeutics Program, and both she and Dr. Sanderson actively participate in oversight of several team-based pilot studies. In this capacity, they help identify novel targets for drug development and promote interactions between the Cancer Cell Biology and Experimental Therapeutics programs.
  • Dr. Bjornsti has spearheaded the development of an RNAi screening facility and a state-of-the-art zebrafish facility, both of which serve as a valuable resource for UAB CCC members to promote inter- and intra-programmatic interactions. She also initiated the development of a Pharmacokinetic/Pharmacodynamic Shared Resource, in support of phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials.
  • Both Drs. Bjornsti and Sanderson serve on the Steering and Oversight Committee of the Graduate Biomedical Sciences interdisciplinary, theme-based graduate program, and Dr. Bjornsti chairs the Finance Committee. The Cancer Biology theme was established in 2009 and is co-led by CCB member Lalita Shevde-Samant, Ph.D. This GBS theme is designed to train the next generation of cancer biologists so that they are able to make significant contributions to basic and clinical research. Both Drs. Bjornsti and Sanderson serve on numerous faculty advisory committees for students training within the Cancer Biology theme. Twenty-two CCB members have a primary affiliation with this graduate program and participate in teaching advanced courses in cancer cell biology. The interactions of the faculty within this program will also afford an opportunity to compete for an NIH Institutional Training Grant in this area.
  • The co-leaders of the CCB Program are actively engaged in faculty recruitment and retention, with a major emphasis on cancer-related research. The program leaders also participate in the review of pilot grant applications associated with the CCC, and spend much time, both in formal review committees and in less structured settings, providing internal reviews of colleague’s NIH/DOD/ACS grant applications.
  • Dr. Sanderson leads the establishment and organization of mentoring committees for junior faculty within the CCB Program. Committees are composed of a minimum of three CCB faculty and meet annually to advise the mentees. This includes assessing faculty progress in research, teaching and service with the goal of helping junior faculty navigate the early years of their independent research careers, and advising on research direction, grantsmanship, operation of laboratories and strategic planning.

Contact Information:

Co-Leader: Ralph Sanderson, Ph.D.
Phone: (205) 996-6226

Co-Leader: Mary-Ann Bjornsti, Ph.D.
Phone: (205) 934-4579

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