Meet Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

The OHSU Department of Dermatology’s 6th chair

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

We are so pleased and excited to welcome our new chair of the Department of Dermatology, Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Leachman comes to OHSU from the University of Utah, where she was director of the Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program in the Huntsman Cancer Institute, a professor in the Department of Dermatology, and member of the Imaging, Diagnostics, and Therapeutics Program and the Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program. Leachman’s transition from Utah will be complete by July 1st, but she has already infused the department with energy and new ideas.

Leachman was a key figure in developing the Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute, serving as its director, and will bring that expertise to her new position of Director of the Melanoma Research Program at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Her talent in team building will improve the care of patients in our community by bringing together researchers and physicians with an interest in melanoma and other skin cancers in order to bring knowledge and expertise from the laboratory into the clinical realm.

Leachman’s research examines the role of genetic predisposition and differential gene expression in the development of melanoma, with an emphasis on the familial melanoma syndrome. Through her investigations, she is seeking to develop agents that will serve as diagnostic tools, prognostic indicators, or targeted agents for the prevention of melanoma. Her clinical interests include skin cancer, especially melanoma, pigmentary disorders that result from abnormalities of melanocytes such as vitiligo, and genetic disorders that involve the skin such as pachyonychia congenita, Cowden syndrome, and other cutaneous cancer syndromes.

Before joining Huntsman Cancer Institute, Leachman was a resident and fellow in dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine, where she worked on a DNA vaccination study to prevent and treat papillomavirus-induced squamous cell carcinoma. She earned her MD and PhD from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, and was awarded the prestigious Doris Duke Clinical Scientist Development Award in 2000. She is currently an NIH R01- and Department of Defense-funded principle investigator.

Want to know more about Sancy? Read a more personal article here.

Q & A with Dr. Sancy Leachman:

Tell us a little about the work you completed for your Ph.D.

Early in my medical school education I thought I would like to be a sports medicine doctor, as I had been a competitive swimmer. As an athlete, I was very interested in molecular mechanisms involved in muscle contractility. My Ph.D. was a molecular biology project devoted to myosin light chain kinse, the enzyme that initiates contraction of smooth muscle. It was like a switch, a mini machine, and I was interested in understanding it molecularly so I could figure out how to artificially contract or relax the muscle. Although that was an interesting project, I came to realize that I didn’t want to be a sports medicine doctor since I had become very interested in immunology and auto-immune disease. The question of why the human body would make antibodies to its own DNA was mystifying to me.

How did you come to choose Dermatology?

Like most students in medical school, I strongly considered various specialties – including pediatric genetics and OB/GYN. I came to choose Dermatology late in my third year of medical school through the help of my advisor, Gene Wilson, M.D., whom I idolized. Science was a huge part of his personal life and he was the ultimate mentor. He was masterful and really understood the art of mentorship – which I would describe as helping a person understand what they don’t know and how to attain that knowledge, including the knowledge of what field is the best match for one’s interests and talents. He understood my interest in immunology and also helped me define what I wanted from a career and my life – which was the ability to have it all: medicine, science and family. Since I was in my third year and time was running out to choose a specialty, he pulled some strings and got me into a dermatology rotation that was already full. That rotation showed me a completely different picture of dermatology than I had understood before. I met Richard Sontheimer, M.D., who became another mentor in my life, and I came to fully understand how naturally dermatology combined with my interest in immunology. Dr. Sontheimer helped me understand that dermatology was “real medicine.”

You matched with Yale, but what was your approach to acquiring a dermatology residency since you indicated that you were late in the standard process timeline for getting into dermatology?

I remember meeting with Chito Cruz, M.D., the residency director at UTSW and telling him that I wanted to go into dermatology. Knowing that I didn’t have any dermatology-related experience, he was skeptical as to my options and even offered a research position in his lab. I was worried that this was an indication I wouldn’t match in dermatology and so I applied to 25 programs and fortunately received an invitation to interview at 22 programs. I had a real life adventure driving all over the country with my dog for those interviews and still have vivid memories of meeting Fran Storrs, M.D., and the Oregon program. In fact, I ranked Oregon number three on my list!

My matching in Yale brought me together with another Oregon-related person: Aaron Lerner, M.D., Ph.D. Aaron became another important mentor, since he was the person who tied my love of immunology with melanoma. Early at Yale, I focused on vitiligo and sought to understand why the immune system killed melanocytes. Dr. Lerner helped me see that melanoma and vitiligo were two sides of the same coin. My original thought was to try to develop a vaccination for melanoma. But eventually, when I moved to Utah, where the major strength of the institution was human genetics, it became apparent that it was possible to directly apply molecular biology to human care. It was incredibly energizing for me!

And when the Utah position opened up and with it the incredible opportunity of access to the population and database of full families with high risk of melanoma, I was able to establish a research program that utilized human subjects, but focused on the molecular etiology of the disease.

How would you define your research in layman’s terms?

The research in my laboratory focuses on the genetics of human melanoma. I have always believed in human genetics, that it will give us the power to inform and drive personalized care for individuals. Now, technology is making it possible. Currently I have a clinical study for patients at high risk for melanoma to investigate the reason for the high risk, particularly risk that runs in families and likely has a genetic basis.

My laboratory has three primary research efforts:

  • To search for melanoma susceptibility genes that cause familial risk
  • To evaluate the relationship between these genes and other physical features (such as hair color, skin color and freckling) and the environment (such as sun exposure and sunburns)
  • To use the knowledge of the genetic cause of melanoma to improve prevention efforts

By using participants who are at very high risk as a model for understanding melanoma, we hope to identify and develop specific prevention and early detection strategies for all melanoma patients.