Timothy J. McDonnell

Born: February 27, 1956 | Long Beach, CA, US

Timothy J. McDonnell was always fascinated with the natural world. He left high school early without graduating and attended the United States International University, where he studied biology, transferring to University of California, San Diego. McDonnell attended graduate school at the University of North Dakota for his Ph.D. and M.D. , where he taught anatomy and worked in the John O. Oberpriller laboratory; his research on cardiac muscle demonstrated that differentiated cells are not necessarily postmitotic. Wanting to combine research with practice, he accepted a postdoc in the Stanley Korsmeyer lab, searching for cancer-causing genes in mice. Next, McDonnell accepted an appointment at the University of Texas. McDonnell discusses learning molecular biology techniques, programmed cell death, growth rate of cancer cells, and mice as models of human disease. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0555
No. of pages: 112
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Steven J. Novak
17-19 June 1996
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas

Abstract of Interview

Timothy J. McDonnell spent his first six years in Indiana and Spain; then the family moved to San Diego, California. His father was a mechanical engineer in the Navy and then the Air Force. His mother had been a weather forecaster in the military during the war and then became a police officer. She gave up work to be a housewife when her children were born. McDonnell was always fascinated with the natural world, wanting first to be a veterinarian and later a herpetologist or an oceanographer; he even worked as a bat bander for a time. He attended public schools; his grade school was very good, but his junior high and high schools less so. In fact, he felt his performance worsened the longer he stayed in school, so after his sophomore year he left high school without having been graduated and entered the United States International University. There he majored in biology, which he continued when he transferred to University of California, San Diego, although his interest shifted from organismic to cellular biology, as exemplified particularly by an interest in the causes of cancer. McDonnell then attended graduate school at the University of North Dakota, where he taught anatomy in addition to doing his own research. He entered the John O. Oberpriller laboratory; there his research on cardiac muscle demonstrated that differentiated cells are not necessarily postmitotic. After receiving his PhD , McDonnell stayed at the University of North Dakota to study for an MD degree. Because he had already had most of the first two years' medical school classes he was able to be a research assistant, teaching anatomy and doing his own research. He decided to transfer to Washington University in St. Louis for his residency in diagnostic pathology. He wanted to specialize in pathology in order to combine research with practice, so he accepted a postdoc in the Stanley Korsmeyer lab, searching for cancer-causing genes in mice. Here McDonnell talks about how he learned molecular biology techniques; established that bcl-2 is an oncogene and discovered that bcl-2 functions not by enhancing cell growth but by preventing cell death. He discusses the concept of apoptosis, programmed cell death; the slow growth rate of most cancer cells; searching for factors which supplement bcl-2 in causing cancer; Korsmeyer's research background and lab management style; and the creation and patenting of transgenic mice. McDonnell continued to be interested in cardiac muscle biology. After his second year he married Sherry Wetsch, at that time a law student. Being newly married and moving to a new city and university was challenging during his third-year, but his fourth-year internship in pathology, diagnosing frozen tissue sections, went well and was well suited to his meticulous personality. Here he explains the technique of flow cytometry. Then it was time to apply for academic positions. McDonnell accepted an appointment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and began staffing his laboratory. He talks about his start-up package and lab space. He shifted his research focus to prostate cancer. He discusses areas of overlap between his own and Korsmeyer's research interests; he goes into his focus on the regulation of cell death and how the disruption of regulation contributes to cancer; he explains his interest in bcl-2's role in regulating transmembrane traffic. McDonnell gives a critique of traditional prostate cancer treatment and discusses the therapeutic potential of apoptosis research. He believes he has insights gained by being a combined MD/PhD He explains the degree to which cancer is associated with infectious diseases and the role of the environment in causing cancer, explaining the difference between cancer cells and normal cells. He tells why mice are models of human disease and of biological systems. Mostly he thinks experiments with animals are ethical, provided they are for health benefits—specifically cancer—but he is a vegetarian. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 United States International University AA
1977 University of California, San Diego BA Biology
1982 University of North Dakota PhD Anatomy
1986 Washington University School of Medicine MD

Professional Experience

Washington University School of Medicine

1986 to 1991
Resident in Pathology

University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

1991 to 1997
Assistant Pathologist, Division of Pathology
1991 to 1996
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Pathology
1996 to 1997
Associate Pathologist, Department of Molecular Pathology, Division of Medicine
1996 to 1997
Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Pathology, Division of Medicine

Honors

Year(s) Award
1991

United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology Stowell-Orbison Award

1992

Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award

1992 to 1996

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1993

United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology Benjamin Castleman Award

Table of Contents

Early and College Years
1

Family background. Childhood in Southern California. Early fascination with the natural world. Enters the United States International University without graduating from high school. Majors in biology. Transfers to University of California, San Diego. Interest shifts from organismic to cellular biology.

Graduate School, Medical School, and Postdoctorate
17

Develops an interest in the causes of cancer. Attends graduate school at the University of North Dakota. Teaching anatomy. Enters the John O. Oberpriller Laboratory. Research on cardiac muscle demonstrates that differentiated cells are not necessarily postmitotic. Pursues an M.D. degree. Residency at Washington University. Specializes in pathology in order to combine researchwith practice. Postdoc in the Stanley J. Korsmeyer lab. Searching for genes causing cancer in mice. Learns molecular biology techniques. Establishes that bcl-2 is an oncogene. Discovers that bcl-2 functions not by enhancing cell growth but by preventing cell death. The concept of apoptosis. The slow growth rate of most cancer cells. Searching for factors which supplement bcl-2 in causingcancer. Korsmeyer's research background. The creation and patenting of transgenic mice. Marries Sherry Wetsch. Fourth-year internship in pathology. Diagnosing frozen tissue sections. Technique of flow cytometry.

Academic Years
53

Decision to begin applying for academic positions. Accepts an appointment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Staffing his laboratory. Shifts research focus to prostate cancer. Start-up package and lab space. The critical mass of medical researchers in the greater Houston area. Areas of overlapbetween McDonnells's and Korsmeyer's research interests. McDonnell's focus on the regulation of cell death and how the disruption of regulation contributes to cancer. Interest in bcl-2's role in regulating transmembrane traffic. The therapeutic potential of apoptosis research. Insights gained by being a combined MD/PhD.

Reflections on Cancer Research
69

Difference between cancer cells and normal cells. Mice as models of human disease and as biological systems. Ethical issues involved in experiments with animals. Vegetarianism. The role of the environment in causing cancer. The variety of ways that cancers cause death. Hazards within the laboratory. Hormonal ablation therapy to treat prostate cancer. The future of cancer research. Preference for studying living systems. Administrative duties. Style of lab management.

Final Thoughts
92

Differences between scientific training and medical training. Finding positions for graduate students and postdocs. Grants. Michael Milken and the Association for the Cure of Cancer of the Prostate. Life in Houston. Family life. Wife's career as an attorney. Balancing family and work. Molecular biology's limitations. Importance of not dismissing aberrant data.

Index
109

About the Interviewer

Steven J. Novak