On Dr. Mark Davis’s, California Institute of Technology faculty page, there is a section devoted to “Awards and Honors” which details the professorships, lectureships and awards Mark has held or received.
His accolades fill an incredible 23 lines.
The chemical engineering professor, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from UK’s College of Engineering, owns the rare distinction of having been elected to the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine—all three of the United States National Academies. He has lectured at prominent universities across the country and abroad and his research into new ways to fight cancer through nanomedicine and chemical synthesis was recently featured on CBS Evening News. As if his career achievements weren’t enough, this past fall Mark won the 400m sprint for men ages 55-59 at the World Masters Track and Field Championship this past summer!
Ironically, Mark likely would not be renowned for applying nanotechnology to cancer treatments were it not for a difficult set of circumstances resulting in a personal challenge that permanently changed his life and career.
“When my wife, Mary, was 35, she was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer,” Mark recalls. “We decided to try the hardest-hitting therapy available at the time to combat it. Unfortunately, the therapy was almost as deadly as the cancer itself, leading to several near-death experiences for Mary.”
One day, near the end of Mary’s treatments, she and Mark reflected on the lack of better ways to attack cancer. Turning to her husband, she asked, “Why don’t you start working on this?”
“I told her I didn’t know anything about cancer treatments,” Mark says. “Up to that point, my research had to do with creating new materials that would open new avenues into science and technology in other areas—but I had never done anything related to medicine. Mary looked at me and asked, ‘Well, what kind of excuse is that?’”
Mark spent the next year studying possible links between his expertise and less devastating cancer treatments. Now, 15 years later, his inventions are being used in clinical trials, although Mark admits that therapies for cancer patients based on his technology are still being tested and are years away from becoming commercial drugs. “These past 15 years have been an incredible experience for me,” Mark says, “I’ve been able to go to hospitals and see people treated with the product I created. To see lives affected positively by something I’ve worked on has been worth all the effort.”
“I’ve been able to go to hospitals and see people treated with the product I created. To see lives affected positively by something I’ve worked on has been worth all the effort.”
The nanoparticles Mark has designed and constructed have been documented to stop the production of a single gene in a patient’s cancer without affecting anything else in the body. Selectively attacking singular genes without causing disruption elsewhere within the patient’s body is intended to prevent painful and potentially lethal side effects—such as those Mark’s wife experienced. “Our hope is that within the next few years, we’ll know if this is really going to work and if we can make it a true drug that is readily available for cancer patients,” he explains. “I look forward to a time when therapeutics are used to effectively treat cancers and also give patients a high quality of life.”
When considering how his education at UK prepared him to eventually begin researching a completely new field of study, Mark says, “A good education provides one with the skills to ‘learn on your own’ for the rest of your life. Chemical engineering has been particularly helpful to me as it taught me the fundamentals of both physical and chemical phenomena. Thus, I have been able to move into new fields with little or no prior background.”
Mark’s story is gaining national prominence: In November 2011, The CBS Evening News aired a feature segment on him and his research; however, as his notoriety increases and the accolades continue to mount, Mark’s vision for how he would like to be remembered is clear and compelling: “Being a good mentor to the next generation of scientists and engineers who will go out and change the world in a positive way.”