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Alumni Profiles - Dr. Bruce Stanton

Pioneering cystic fibrosis research

University of Maine alumnus Dr. Bruce Stanton of Dartmouth Medical School delivered UMaine’s 2011 Distinguished Honors Graduate Lecture: “Arsenic: A Global Health Crisis. How Safe Is Our Water and Food?” We asked him to profile his career, which includes pioneering research in the cure for cystic fibrosis:

Job Title: Professor of microbiology and immunology, and of physiology and neurobiology at Dartmouth Medical School; Andrew C. Vail Distinguished Professor; and Director of the Dartmouth Cystic Fibrosis Research Development Program, the Dartmouth Lung Biology Center, and the Center for the Environmental Health Sciences at Dartmouth

Where did you grow up?

All over New England, high school north of Boston.

Where is home now?

Hanover, N.H., the home of Dartmouth College, where I work.

Years at UMaine and degrees?

1974, B.A. in biology; highest honors

Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?

Obtaining my Ph.D. from Yale University. Co-authoring three textbooks for college and medical students. And, we assembled a team of scientists to work toward developing a cure for cystic fibrosis. This team works within the Lung Biology Center; we have obtained more than $60 million of research grants and our laboratory-based research has led to the development of drugs that are now in clinical trials to cure cystic fibrosis.

How did UMaine prepare you for this career?

When I was a freshman, I was invited to join the Honors Program. As an Honors student, I had the opportunity to participate in classes that emphasized small group discussion. My professors encouraged creative thinking and emphasized the development of writing skills. This learning experience, coupled with the opportunity to work in the laboratory on my Honors thesis, prepared me for a career in medical and environmental research. I am very grateful to my freshman English professor who nominated me to Honors.

How did cystic fibrosis research become a focus for you?

One of my graduate students had an idea that he thought could make a difference in CF. At the time, we did not study CF so I was reluctant to enter the CF field. My student was very passionate about his idea, so eventually I encouraged him to conduct a few preliminary studies, which worked and led to several grants from the CF Foundation and then from the National Institutes of Health. At the time, I also sailed with a colleague who had CF and I was well aware of the debilitating nature of the disease.

Tell us about the four major projects in your laboratory and the breakthroughs you’ve made in recent years.

A major emphasis of my laboratory and our center is to educate and mentor the next generation of scientists. We have had many incredibly bright students in our program go on to have very successful careers in medical research. Another emphasis of our laboratory is to develop a cure for cystic fibrosis. We have discovered that a combination of two FDA-approved drugs eliminates bacterial infections in a model system of CF, and we have collaborated with two drug companies to develop a clinical trial that looks very promising. Finally, as a consultant I worked with Vertex Pharmaceuticals to develop two new drugs for CF that have been very promising in early clinical trials.

From your perspective, what is most important for the layperson to know about cystic fibrosis and the research focused on it?

Cystic fibrosis is a debilitating, chronic disease that shortens the lives of children and young adults. The are many drugs that are being developed for CF at the present time, and several are very promising. The CF Foundation, major research centers like the Dartmouth CF Center, and numerous scientists in the U.S. and abroad will not stop researching until there is a cure. Scientists who work on CF are very dedicated to finding a cure.

Are you involved in any collaboration with UMaine on cystic fibrosis research? If so, tell us about that collaboration.

No formal research interactions, but I have followed Carol Kim’s work on CFTR and innate immunity in zebrafish with great interest. Professors Keith Hutchison, Carol Kim and I teach a course for Honors College students that I really enjoy.

Why did you choose biology?

My interest in biology began when I read several of Rachel Carson’s books, including Silent Spring, Under the Sea-Wind and The Sea Around Us. My courses in biology at UMaine and four summers working in a marine biology laboratory in Woods Hole — the same lab where Rachel Carson and my grandfather studied in the 1920s — also greatly influenced my choice of biology as a career path.

Why UMaine?

I looked at several small liberal arts schools but felt that their science programs were too limited and that the extracurricular opportunities were narrowly focused. Maine had a very strong science program and when I visited campus, I had a very positive experience. I attended high school outside of Boston and I wanted a more rural experience in college. And, of course, the proximity to Baxter and Acadia were a bonus. Every year since graduation I have come back to Maine and, for the last 14 years, I have worked at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, where I run a high school science program, teach a course for medical students, and have a laboratory where we use marine animals to study the effects of toxins in the environment on human disease.

What kinds of research were you involved in as a UMaine student?

My Honors thesis examined how marine animals acclimate to changes in their environment and to stress. My professor, Charlie Major, and I collected samples for our studies at Lamoine Beach even in the winter. I still remember how cold Frenchman Bay is in January.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?

I enjoyed the Stillwater River and the University Forest, especially running and biking along the trails.

Most memorable UMaine moment?

The candlelight vigils protesting the Vietnam War.

While in Orono, I spent too much time:

In the library. There were many opportunities at the university that I missed.

Favorite professor (and why)?

My physics (Briscoe) and statistics professors. Although they taught required courses out of my major, both professors were passionate and engaging.

Class that nearly did you in?

Calculus

If I knew then what I know now, I would have… gone to medical school and obtained an M.D./Ph.D. I find that translational and clinically relevant research to be incredibly rewarding, and clinical training would have been a nice complement to my education in the basic sciences.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?

Each year I teach an Honors course at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in March, and each summer several Maine students work in my lab at the MDIBL. These courses are enjoyable and a great way to stay connected with the university, the faculty and the students. I am a big hockey fan and enjoy coming to campus for games and also attending games in Boston, especially when we beat BC.

Who is your biology/physiology inspiration?

Initially, Rachel Carson. I read all her books when I was in my early teens. She was passionate about the environment and was very brave in her single-handed efforts to regulate the use of DDT and other pesticides. In graduate school, my adviser, Dr. Gerhard Giebisch. He taught me how to be a scientist, to always ask important questions, and to treat everyone respectfully.

Best advice to biology students?

Try as many new things as possible, live in a “foreign” place at least once in your life, and do something fun every day (something I learned from one of my Honors professors at Maine).

If not a physiologist, what would you be?

A professional sailor. For fun I race sailboats, mostly blue water to places like Bermuda and Nova Scotia. Last summer, our boat won our class and placed third overall in a race from Long Island Sound to Boothbay Harbor.

Image Description: Bruce Stanton

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