Addition of Drs. Gradilone, Robinson make for 15 faculty overall – triple from ’06

Two more cancer research section leaders have joined The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, filling the last remaining laboratory space created by the 2006-2008 major expansion.

Dr. Sergio Gradilone and Dr. James Robinson – both assistant professors now at The Hormel Institute – are the 14th and 15th research section leaders at the Institute. That is triple the number of research sections – five – when The Hormel Institute’s last expansion project started in 2006 to triple its lab space by building a new addition with 20 state-of-the-art labs.

Gradilone, who heads the “Cancer Cell Biology and Translational Research” section, has relocated from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he was a researcher for eight years. Robinson, head of the “Cell Signaling and Tumorigenesis” section, had been doing research since 2011 at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

These two new cancer research sections join the Institute in the midst of its new, major expansion that began this summer to nearly double the facility’s size with another 20 labs on its east side. Fifteen labs will be for additional research sections, with the other five labs housing technology and equipment for use by all Institute researchers. In the coming years, The Hormel Institute is expected to nearly double in employment from about 125 to 250.


Dr. Sergio Gradilone

Dr. Sergio Gradilone

Gradilone, who earned his doctorate’s degree from the National University of Rosario in Argentina, expects to hire three researchers for his section. He is working under a two-year, $437,250 federal grant from the National Cancer Institute under the National Institutes of Health.

He was drawn to The Hormel Institute because of its continuing growth and “superb environment” to develop his area of cancer research.

“There is a tremendous amount of expertise here in different fields of cancer biology,” Gradilone said, “and the setup of this Institute promotes the collaboration between laboratories, which will enhance the breadth of my own research.”

Gradilone focuses on understanding the basic biological processes involved with a normal cell transforming into a cancerous one. Potential therapeutic interventions, he said, might be realized by better understanding these mechanisms.

In particular, Gradilone is investigating the role of the primary cilium in tumor biology. Primary cilia are multisensory organelles – similar to a cell antenna – that sense and receive signals from the environment surrounding the cells. Gradilone has found that these antennae are lost in tumor cells, and, given that, is trying to understand the mechanisms of ciliary loss and determine the consequences of such a loss.

His primary cilia research is focused now on an aggressive, lethal form of liver cancer known as “cholangiocarcinoma” that derives from epithelial cells of the bile ducts. Its incidence has been increasing worldwide in recent decades and there is no effective treatment for it. Loss of primary cilia also has been described in other solid tumors, including pancreatic, prostate, breast and kidney cancers.

“By partnering with collaborators directly engaged in the treatment of patients and with pharmaceutical industries, our ultimate goal is to translate our basic research to the bedside by developing new, clinical trials for these diseases,” he said.


Dr. James Robinson

Dr. James Robinson


Robinson, who earned his doctorate’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, University of London in England, is working under a three-year, $747,000 federal grant from the National Institutes of Health and plans to hire four scientists for his section. He described his move from Utah to Minnesota as a way to expand his research in colon cancer and melanoma, the most-fatal form of skin cancer.

“I am very proud to join this remarkable and rapidly growing institution,” Robinson said. “I’m very excited about the opportunities for scientific collaboration.”

His research focuses on defining critical targets in cancer cells that can become the focus for therapeutic intervention.

“Because of the prohibitive costs associated with developing new targeted therapies, it is important to pinpoint the genetic alterations that can be targeted effectively,” Robinson said.

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths – behind lung cancer – among men and women in the United States. Robinson is trying to develop a systematic approach for identifying and validating stromal signaling pathways responsible for the promotion, metastasis and chemoresistance of colon cancer.

Melanoma accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths and prognosis is poor for advanced stages of the disease. In fact, the five-year survival rates for patients with metastatic melanoma is less than 15 percent. Oncogenes – genes that promote cancer growth – often are mutated or expressed at high levels in melanoma cells.

Robinson is employing cutting-edge research methods to study the efficacy of targeting specific oncogenes in melanoma as part of an ongoing effort to understand the resistance to the latest generation of targeted therapeutics.