One conversation about the immunology of brain tumors in 1978 sparked a research passion that has fueled the illustrious, productive career of G. Yancey Gillespie, Ph.D. That conversation, with M. Stephen Mahaley, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., ultimately led Gillespie to UAB, where he has spent nearly 30 years developing a renowned neuro-oncology research program.

Dr. Yancey GillespieDr. Yancey Gillespie“Yancey Gillespie has served as the cornerstone of the UAB Neuro-Oncology Program for more than 30 years as a scientist, mentor and collaborator,” said James M. Markert, M.D., professor and chair of the UAB Department of Neurosurgery. “His remarkable research has led to a tremendous increase in our understanding of brain tumors. His work has set the stage for further advances in our treatment of these difficult diseases, both directly and indirectly, through his research and that of his trainees and collaborators.”

Gillespie was one of three founding members of the neuro-oncology program in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center at the program’s creation in 1986. Under his watch, the program has grown from a small group of three scientists to a large multi-disciplinary collaborative that now comprises 25 members from nine departments and two schools. In the five-year period of 2011-2015, neuro-oncology program members were responsible for 183 impact publications and more than $6.9 million in grant and contract funding for UAB. Gillespie has served as co-leader of the program with L. Burt Nabors, M.D., since 2008.

During his career, Gillespie has collaborated with almost all former and current members of the UAB Neuro-Oncology Program. These collaborations have been the underpinning of many of the program’s collective grants, including UAB’s receipt for one of the first Specialized Programs of Research Excellence grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute for brain cancer research in 2002.

Much of Gillespie’s research has been focused on the development of animal models for intracranial malignant brain tumors. These models have been used to test new potential treatments, many of which have been successfully translated from the lab to clinical trials.

“Yancey is an international leader in the brain tumor, oncolytic virotherapy and gene therapy fields,” said Gregory Friedman, M.D., associated professor of pediatrics. “His translational research has led to the development of new treatments and therapies for brain tumor patients.”

In order to focus more on his research, Gillespie is now stepping away from several of his formalized leadership roles. He now plans to devote his attention to two areas of interest: 1) oncolytic virus therapy for brain tumors and 2) the effects of specific kinase inhibitors on brain tumor growth.

Oncolytic virus therapy for brain tumors is one of Gillespie’s long-standing research interests. Gillespie helped recruit Markert to UAB in 1996 to provide the crucial clinical link for this research program. UAB is at the forefront of this field and has completed three Phase I clinical trials with the first-generation genetically engineered oncolytic Herpes Simplex Viruses, G207. A fourth Phase I trial with a second-generation virus, M032, which was made at UAB, has now begun.

As a strong supporter of the integration of adult and pediatric cancer research efforts, Gillespie has worked with Markert, Friedman and Rich Whitley, M.D., distinguished professor of pediatrics, to conduct oncolytic Herpes Simplex Virus research into pediatric brain tumor patients.

“UAB is probably the only institution in the world where both adult and pediatric clinical trials are underway simultaneously with oncolytic HSV,” Gillespie said. “It is a very exciting time for this research at UAB. The FDA has just awarded an Investigational New Drug permit for us to test a third-generation version of the virus in adult patients.”

Gillespie’s impact on the UAB Neuro-Oncology Program is evidenced by more than just research dollars and collaborations; he has been integral to the recruitment of numerous faculty throughout the years and has served as a trusted mentor to many more.

“I am amazed at the growth and expansion of the brain tumor research enterprise at UAB and also the fact that both Ph.D. scientists and M.D. clinicians work together seamlessly,” Gillespie said. “It has been exceptionally rewarding to have been present at the start and to now look back on the numerous successes and impressive growth of the program. I am also quite proud of my trainees, many of whom have established their own careers.”

Elizabeth Beierle, M.D., professor of surgery, recalled when she first asked Gillespie to be her mentor for her K award from the NIH.

“He made an amazing leap of faith to agree to such an undertaking after only meeting with me for a brief interview,” Beierle said. “Yancey truly has an open-door policy and is always willing and available to help answer any question.

“Often, he not only helps you answer the original question, but also, due to his thought-provoking discourse, leaves you with two or three additional questions to address through further investigation.”

In addition to Beierle, Gillespie has also recently mentored Friedman, as well as Corinne Griguer, Ph.D., a biochemist focused on malignant glioma, specifically the bioenergetic pathways involved in its development and progression. As mentioned above, Friedman is the principal investigator for the first-ever pediatric trial of HSV G207 in children with recurrent or progressive brain cancers. Griguer holds numerous NIH awards and is co-principal investigator on a grant under the NIH-Network for Excellence in Neuroscience Clinical Trials to study a novel biomarker that may help identify which glioblastoma cancers are more susceptible to certain therapies. 

“When I first started in the lab, I never imagined continuing laboratory research beyond what was required by my fellowship,” Friedman said. “However, due to Yancey’s outstanding leadership and infectious love of science, I developed a true passion for research.”

“Yancey’s breadth of scientific knowledge is beyond remarkable, and there is really not a scientific topic that he cannot provide some insight into,” Beierle said. “But one thing that has always impressed me about Yancey is his ability to essentially ‘know it all’ without seeming like a ‘know-it-all.’ His approachable, unassuming personality is what makes him a truly exceptional mentor.”

Gillespie recently honored his mentor, Mahaley, with a gift to establish a fund to provide support for a brain tumor research graduate assistant, as well as a second fund to create an annual award for the neurosurgery resident physician with the best presentation in translational neurosurgical research at the UAB Department of Neurosurgery’s J. Garber Galbraith, M.D., Scientific Session and Lecture.

“Steve [Mahaley] was a very unique individual and accomplished a significant amount involving laboratory and clinical research in brain tumors during his time at UAB,” Gillespie said. “Both of the funds are to recognize Steve’s passion for research and for translating basic science discoveries to the clinic. He was doing that long before ‘translational research’ became a watchword in medical research.”

As Gillespie prepares to step away from many of his formal leadership roles within the department, he continues to reflect on his time spent at UAB and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

“I have had a very rewarding career that could be measured more by the success of my trainees than by my own success,” Gillespie said.

See also: "Gillespie Neuro-Oncology Travel Award launched"

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