Cancer Researcher Spins ‘Gold Dust’ from Courage and Collaboration

Nov. 18, 2021

When Scott Gerber was 23 years old, he was a cashier at Dunkin Donuts and admittedly “lost” in a master’s program at the University of Rochester Medical Center. But he took a risk based on an interest in immunology, and signed up for an advanced seminar taught by Edith Lord, a prominent immunologist and former Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education at URMC. The course was for PhD candidates. Gerber’s peers called him “crazy,” suggesting the material was over his head.

It wasn’t the first time he would ignore naysayers. Gerber stuck with it and Lord saw promise: She snatched him away from the donut shop and hired him to work as a technician in her lab. It set his career in motion.

“‘You’ve got the brains and the drive,’ she told me, ‘you just need lab experience,’‘’ Gerber recalls.

After additional mentoring and investment from the Wilmot Cancer Institute, Gerber, 46, found his footing. He’s amassed millions in funding, most of it from the National Cancer Institute, an impressive amount for a mid-career scientist that includes three RO1 grants.

The latest addition to his war chest is a particularly competitive NCI grant, which is worth $2.6 million. It is known as a multi-investigator award for translational cancer research, geared toward quickly bringing promising therapies to patients. The recipients are Gerber and his latest mentor, David Linehan, M.D., Wilmot’s director of clinical operations and a highly respected pancreatic cancer clinician/scientist.

Their project involves a clinical trial that combines radiation therapy and immune therapy, precisely timed, using a new drug-delivery system called microspheres, to destroy pancreatic tumors with fewer side effects. An “investigator-initiated study,” as it’s known, is when a homegrown concept is proven to be sound scientifically and ready for evaluation in humans. It’s a difficult feat that many cancer researchers aspire to achieve: moving basic laboratory findings into the clinic. They’ll also continue to investigate pancreatic cancer in the lab.

“In science, the gold dust comes when you encounter very exciting observations,” says Hucky Land, Ph.D., Wilmot’s Deputy Director and research leader. “In Scott’s case, his success is tied to his amazing discoveries about combination therapy.”

Out of His League?

A Lewiston, N.Y., native, Gerber’s initiation to science started in his father’s Niagara Falls veterinary practice, where he learned to analyze bloodwork and diagnose parasites and illness. From there, he attended a state school, SUNY Fredonia, for undergraduate studies. 

“Compared to the path that other new professors have taken, I do not have a certain pedigree,” he says, laughing. “But I work hard and I know my limitations, which allows me to focus on my strengths.”

A tumor immunologist, Gerber enrolled in a graduate-level class when he was a junior at Fredonia — once again, ignoring those who told him the work was out of his league — and the professor, Patricia Astry, “opened my mind to immunology and probably doesn’t even realize how much influence she had on my life,” he says. 

While finishing at Fredonia, Gerber applied to veterinary school at Cornell University, mostly out of loyalty to his family. When Cornell put him on a wait list, Gerber felt free to look into other programs, and with his father’s understanding he landed in Rochester to pursue his real passion, the wonders of the immune system.

During graduate school, Gerber discovered a new technique for looking at tumors called “whole mount histology.” He published several papers as first author, and received his PhD in 2005.

Two weeks later, he was at Yale University as a post-doc with his wife and infant son. While there, Gerber won a fellowship in cancer research; he had a prolific three years as the lead author for three more papers, published in scientific journals. 

Reflecting on these early years, Gerber says he’s driven to provide the same opportunities to the trainees in his lab at Wilmot.

“That I can potentially have an impact on them — that’s the most rewarding part of my job,” Gerber says. “I’m still being mentored. And I tell my students that education is more than just the nuts and bolts of taking classes. You have to be smart enough to reach out and get help, and you have to listen to your mentors.” 

Taking Chances

While at Yale, Gerber had an opportunity to come back to Rochester, and he decided to listen to his gut. Although Gerber had the impression that returning too quickly to the URMC without funding would make it harder to succeed, his young son was struggling with a health issue and Gerber wanted to be  closer to family in western New York.

It turns out that coming home was the right move. At URMC, Gerber met Linehan, the Seymour I Schwartz Chair of Surgery — who became his next stalwart supporter. Linehan saw talent, agreed to mentor Gerber, and promoted him into a tenure-track position.

“He took a chance on me,” Gerber says. “He pushed me, and told me that I have to start translating my science to the next level, and he was 100 percent correct. After that, we changed everything about the way we conducted our research, which led to numerous breakthroughs and our new clinical trial.”

Today, the Linehan/Gerber research powerhouse at Wilmot is positioned to create novel treatments and to stretch into new areas of investigation. They are forging relationships with drug companies, so that patients will realize the full benefits of the science, sooner.

“Scott is an accomplished immunologist with an exemplary work ethic who clearly wants to use his expertise to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients,” Linehan says. “What sets him apart is his dedication to teaching and mentoring young clinicians and scientists, with sincerity and kindness, to advance our field. His track record of success speaks for itself.”