DTMI Profile: Shannon J. McCall, MD

Director of Biospecimen Repository & Processing Core by day, computer techie by night

April 25, 2014

Shannon McCall first recalls hearing the term "translational medicine" on her hematopathology rotation as a resident physician at Duke in early 2002. Clinicians were beginning to use targeted therapies for cancer, such as imatinib, and the association between molecular changes in tumors and drugs that might keep tumors at bay was a hot topic.

"For me, that's when I realized that society was becoming aware that newer, targeted drugs could be translated into the clinical realm with significant impact," she said.

In her own words, here's a bit more about McCall's professional and personal journey in the field of translational medicine.

What is your current role within the Duke Translational Medicine Institute?

McCall: As a pathologist at Duke Hospital, I examine biopsies and surgical specimens removed from patients. I also spend about 35 percent of my time directing the Biospecimen Repository & Processing Core (BRPC). This is a shared resource for Duke researchers funded through the Duke Cancer Institute and the School of Medicine, and is part of the DTMI's biobanking program.

The BRPC offers patients the opportunity to safely donate excess portions of their surgical specimens for use in research. The BRPC provides clinical trials support and general biobanking services for solid tumor specimens, including patient consent, specimen collection and processing, RNA and DNA extraction, and secure storage of all specimens, derived products and electronic data.

How do you know your work is making a difference?

McCall: We have early feedback from investigator colleagues that say including our infrastructure as part of their grant proposal improves their grant scores when it comes to the quality of the research infrastructure.  Also, one of the novel aspects of the BRPC is that we don't collect tissues just for one researcher. We bank tissues, nucleic acids, blood and plasma in a centralized way so many investigators can use them. 

When you started your career, is this where you expected to end up?

McCall: No!  I studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate at NC State.  During my senior year I was applying for both engineering jobs and to medical schools, unsure until the last minute which direction to take. 

I became interested in pathology during my third-year of medical school at Duke which I spent in a basic science laboratory studying calcium-binding of troponin isoforms in heart muscle. I loved being in the lab applying mathematics and engineering, and pathology seemed a natural way to keep learning and exploring while making a contribution to medicine.

I worked for several years at LabCorp after pathology residency, but returned to Duke as a faculty member in 2010, mostly because I missed the collaborative, cross-disciplinary atmosphere and the opportunities to give back to medicine.

The timing was perfect because I was able to join the working group for the development of BRPC and ensure this resource became part of the Department of Pathology.  I became director of the BRPC in January, 2013 when Michael Datto, MD, PhD, the first director, assumed the role of Director of DUHS Clinical Laboratories. I love working at the intersection of patient care and biomedical research.  I also love hearing from our cancer patients who appreciate the opportunity to donate unused portions of their tumor to foster the development of future treatments.

What has been the highlight of your career at Duke so far?

McCall: In April, 2013 the BRPC was formally accredited as a Biorepository by the College of American Pathologists (CAP). We were the 20th biobank in the U.S. to receive that level of accreditation, which shows that we meet the same high standards of quality and regulatory control applied to clinical laboratories under federal law. A few months after the accreditation visit, the CAP asked me to join the Biorepository Accreditation Committee which directs and oversees the entire inspection program. It is exciting to take my experience in biorepository science at Duke to the national level.

When you aren't working as a pathologist, what do you enjoy doing most?

McCall: I'm a techie -- I like building and playing with computers and gadgets. I've built my own computers and even have a soldering iron in my garage.  My latest experiment is to become an explorer for Google Glass. I think that would be great fun!