When tumors manipulate their mitochondria, Kevin Tharp will be there to stop them

Kevin Tharp headshot in lab

Newly arrived at Sanford Burnham Prebys, Tharp will look at how cellular mechanics can be leveraged to create more effective therapies

Mitochondria generate most of the chemical energy needed to fuel a cell’s machinery, their so-called power plants. But their influence goes well beyond simply powering the metabolism of life; they also play a role in disease.

Kevin Tharp, Ph.D., who recently joined Sanford Burnham Prebys as an assistant professor and principal investigator in the Cancer Metabolism & Microenvironment program, studies the interplay between mitochondrial metabolism and the physical properties of the tumor microenvironment.

Tharp uses genetically engineered mouse models and bioengineered human tumor models to define the mitochondrial programming unique to cancer cells in the tumor microenvironment. The goal, he said, will be to develop new therapies that block the metabolic adaptations that cancer cells use to metastasize, a major cause of cancer-associated mortality.

Colorized SEM image of a fractured mitochondrion revealing its internal structure
Colorized SEM image of a fractured mitochondrion
revealing its internal structure

“I study how cells make decisions about their metabolic programming, which I expect will enable us to develop new therapeutics against metastatic tumor cells,” said Tharp, who previously worked as a postdoctoral scholar in the Center for Bioengineering & Tissue Regeneration at UCSF Health.

“My goal is to identify druggable mechanisms by which cancer cells metabolically adapt to the distinct environments they encounter during metastasis. Success means developing therapeutics that change the number of survivors—not just the average duration of survival after diagnosis.”

Tharp became interested in how the physical properties of the microenvironment affect cellular metabolism in graduate school at UC Berkeley while making synthetic organs to treat metabolic disease from biomaterials and stem cells.

“When I considered how my scientific questions could be therapeutically useful, I decided to work to understand the adaptive metabolism of cancer cells with the hope and expectation that I would develop effective therapeutics in my lifetime.

“The greatest opportunities in science lie in correcting concepts/dogma that are based on assumptions and not data or direct evidence. Correcting assumptions with mechanistic insights is critical to progress, but this is challenging because many scientific gatekeepers forget where their actual expertise ends and their assumptions begin.

“I hope to address these opportunities with concise experiments, nonconfrontational communication, and universal skepticism applied with a kind disposition.”

Tharp completed his Ph.D. in metabolic biology at UC Berkeley and his bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Santa Cruz, where he graduated with honors and the Dean’s Award in Chemistry.

He has received meritorious funding awards from the Sandler Foundation and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute for his postdoctoral research.

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