Logo: University of Southern California

Cancer's new worst enemy

Nicholas Graham discusses engineering approaches to cancer cell signaling and metabolism to design next generation cancer therapies
By: Sam Corey
March 18, 2016 —


Nicholas Graham 580
Nicholas Graham Photo/Will Taylor

Nicholas Graham's research in the molecular functions of cells and organisms is shedding new light on what drives cancer development.

Using systems biology, a discipline that integrates biology, statistics and engineering, Graham's lab has been able to generate a wealth of information on the effects of cancer at a molecular level.

The assistant professor enters USC Viterbi's Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science with a breadth of accolades.

He has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on several occasions, as well as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Biomolecular Screening, Cancer Research and Molecular Systems Biology.

He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2001 with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology upon graduating in 2007.

He was also a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA from 2007-2011, studying tumor cell biology and molecular and medical biology and a scholar in oncologic molecular imaging postdoctoral fellow at UCLA from 2011-2014.

Why did you choose to teach at USC?

I came to USC because I wanted to be at a world-class engineering school with an associated medical school. My research incorporates both of these fields, so I felt like it was a natural fit.

What research will you be working on while at USC Viterbi?

I’m particularly interested in the network properties in cancer cells. I also like systems biology, which examines how all the individual components of a cell, molecule, organism or an entire species come together and function as a network. I’d like to apply this to cancer research to see what happens inside cancer cells – to try to generate data in order to learn how cancer cells function. Then we can see why drugs are working and design future therapeutics based on these models and research.

What made you want to pursue a career in engineering?

Ever since I was young, I really liked math and chemistry. From there, I started studying chemical engineering without understanding what it was. I knew I needed to use math and physics principles to learn how something works.

Why did you decide to get a doctorate in chemical engineering and work in a molecular pharmacology lab as a postdoctorate?

When I began my graduate studies, only traditional engineering academic experiences were offered. I saw there was a lot of chemical engineering intersecting with biology. So I ended up choosing to study in a lab that offered both because I was fascinated with the interface of both fields.

What has been your favorite research project you’ve worked on?

My favorite research project is actually the one I’m currently working on right now. I’m looking at the alteration in cancer genomes and how they alter the metabolism of cancer cells. What this means is, cancer cells are avid consumers of glucose, which is how a cancer cell metabolizes and spreads. So if you interrupt their consumption of glucose, the cancer cell slowly dies.

What do you think you will contribute to the USC Viterbi community?

I will contribute an experimental approach to systems biology, and I will help build networks that will strengthen collaboration between Viterbi and Keck. Biology is complex but finite; we know the component of cells and organisms, but we still have ways to go in fully understanding how they work. Accomplishing this will result in more personalized medicine and individualized treatments for various illnesses. A better systems understanding will give both doctors and engineers a more targeted treatment for patients.

How does it feel to work with students aspiring to be engineers?

I’m excited to work with the Viterbi students. It’s a great and rewarding challenge, but the students here are very bright and motivated. The biggest challenge of being a professor and a mentor in this type of environment is being on top of your game at all times in order to bring out these students’ maximum potential.


Graham Research Lab

Mork Family Department