New to Colorado, Clayton Smith is advancing blood cancer treatment and care at CU
Clayton Smith, MD, CU Cancer Center, BMT

Clayton Smith, MD, Director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program, University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Great science is the main reason Clayton Smith came to Colorado. Easy access to beautiful mountains, strong research collaborators and the opportunity to lead University of Colorado Cancer Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant Program are additional perks.

“I visited Colorado over the years for scientific conferences and I loved it,” Smith says. “You’ve got to love the mountains and the sunshine. Believe me, after the gloomy, rainy weather in Vancouver, B.C., the sunshine is a big deal.”

Prior to coming to CU Cancer Center in July 2012, Smith spent years fostering a longdistance collaboration with a member of University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences faculty—Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD. For 25 years, Vasiliou’s laboratory has studied aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDHs) focusing on their role in metabolism, cellular responses to stress, metabolic diseases, cancer and cancer stem cells. Smith and Vasiliou research the role of ALDHs in controlling the growth of normal stem cells and leukemia stem cells.

“Vasilis is the leading expert in the world on the ALDH gene family,” says Smith. “I read his papers, followed his research, and then had the good fortune to meet him in San Francisco. We were attending different conferences at the same time, but we sat down to a crab dinner and talked about science.”

Today, instead of multiple phone calls and emails or meetings in other cities, Smith walks across campus.

“It is particularly nice on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to have a superb group of researchers all within easy walking distance of each other—this really fosters collaboration and interaction,” Smith says.

“I have a fruitful collaboration with Clay. It’s wonderful having him closer,” Vasiliou says. “Easy access provides opportunities for a more productive collaboration and spontaneous genius — both of which have the potential to lead to a breakthrough. That’s exciting.”

Smith’s research involves manipulating ALDH genes to grow more normal stem cells, which in turn compete against and eliminate leukemia stem cells. Additionally, by learning to manipulate stem cells, he may help unlock the mystery of how ALDH genes turn on cancer.

“If we can identify how blood stem cells become cancerous, the next step will be researching whether we can interrupt that process,” Smith says. “Learning how these cells operate may also help us identify existing targeted therapies or even develop new drugs to treat blood cancer.” One day Smith, Vasiliou and other researchers could discover how to prevent leukemia from developing in the first place.

Turning lab findings into targeted therapies isn’t only a huge success for Smith and other researchers; it’s also a success for patients around the world living with leukemia and a success for Smith’s patients at CU Cancer Center.

“When I was an intern at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, one of my patients had acute leukemia and I could look under a microscope and see his disease,” says Smith. “Patients like him have to fight hard to beat leukemia and I want to find them hope and extend their lives.”

Smith credits his enthusiasm to people— to these patients and to his colleagues. “My collaborators at CU Cancer Center are the most dedicated and passionate people in medicine,” Smith says—and he should know, having trained with leading experts from institutions including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Moffitt Cancer Center, Duke University Medical Center and Stanford University Medical Center. That was before
becoming the director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Leukemia/BMT Program in Vancouver.

“Science and technology are constantly changing and there have been spectacular advances in treating leukemia in my lifetime,” Smith says. “Being part of that change offers the opportunity to use what I see in the lab when I’m seeing my patients.”