Dr. Anna Moore featured in the College of Human Medicine feature article

Determined to Break Through

Leading Expert Pushes Boundaries of Discovery to Make a Difference

Losing a close friend to metastatic cancer prompted Anna Moore, Ph.D.—a  Michigan State University cancer imaging research expert and director of the Precision Health Program—to  relentlessly pursue transformative research solutions around cancer.
Dr. Anna Moore

“Natalia was 29 years old and had two sons, who were only three and five,” Moore said. “There was nothing I could do to help, and that’s when I knew I had to do something.”

Statistics are strong and sad for those diagnosed with metastatic cancer, which accounts for 90 percent of U.S. cancer deaths versus primary tumors. Even today, metastases are treated similar to primary tumors though they are genetically, phenotypically and morphologically different than primary tumor cells and can migrate to other organs within the body.

These traveling cells, according to Moore, are a relatively small number among billions comprising the tumor. Spending most of her career at Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Moore discovered a breakthrough.

“We found one property that makes these wandering metastatic cells vulnerable and then we designed a drug which can alleviate them in two ways,” Moore said. “By targeting these specific cells, we can prevent them leaving a primary tumor and also kill them even if they already formed metastases (sites).”

What gets Moore out of bed, despite the dismal statistics? The belief that every death which can be prevented, should be prevented, regardless of geography, age or race; a mantra infused in Moore’s proactive approach to prevent health issues before they arise.

Listening to Moore, her passion for alleviating cancer patients’ suffering is crystal clear. Garnering over $30 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for her work, Moore is diligently developing a vibrant ecosystem at MSU. The ultimate goal of the Precision Health Program—which Moore established at MSU—is to shift the paradigm of health care from reactive to proactive, by focusing on prediction, prevention and early detection to improve outcomes, reduce costs and better the quality of patients’ lives.

The Path to Innovation

Moore’s grandmother Sofia (center) with students at the Moscow Medical School.

Russian born and raised, plus curious from the start—taking apart her mother’s watch to reassemble it at age seven—Moore grew up around scientists and physicians. 

The daughter of a physicist father and chemist mother, it was Moore’s grandmother Sofia, a cardiologist and professor at Moscow Medical School, who influenced her the most. Moore recalls hearing stories of Sofia pitching in as a trauma surgeon to treat wounded WWII soldiers and later as a cardiologist at one of the busiest clinics in Moscow.

For a woman in the former Soviet Union this was an immensely hard path, and Moore saw firsthand how difficult and challenging it could be.

“My grandmother pushed me toward biomedical research, because when I was deciding on my career path and wanted to be a surgeon, she actually discouraged me from taking that path,” Moore remembered. “She was an amazing person and a female doctor … I remember her mailbox being packed with thank you notes from grateful patients.”

Moore (center) with members of the Precision Health program.

That’s how Moore decided to go into research and still help patients, now from her bench. Moore received a Ph.D. at the Russian Academy of Sciences and came to the United States in 1990, when she performed research for a year at Amherst College. In 1991, Moore accepted a postdoctoral research position at Massachusetts General Hospital and moved to Boston.

Throughout Moore’s career, she has had many opportunities to develop determination and rely on the same grit her grandmother taught her. Running a very successful NIH-funded program at Mass General for many years, but seeing very little support from administration, she decided to search for better opportunities.

Anna Moore as an undergraduate at Moscow State University.

“I was my own administrative assistant and spent all my time writing grants as this was the sole source of income for my lab,” Moore said. “It was hard to find collaborators in Boston, but my experience has been totally different at Michigan State.”

Upon joining the College of Human Medicine faculty in 2018, what Moore found at MSU was collaboration, a renewed sense of purpose, support from leadership and the time for fresh thinking in her multidisciplinary approach.

“Even if I wasn’t at MSU, I’d still be working with the researchers here, they are the best,” Moore added with certainty.

Limitless Possibilites

Taking an entrepreneurial approach, Moore co-founded Transcode Therapeutics, Inc. in 2016, an emerging RNA oncology company where she applies decades of drug discovery and development expertise to defeating metastatic cancer. The company went public this year after successfully raising approximately $30 million for clinical trials.

“I hope to eventually bring these trials to Michigan State through the Henry Ford Health System partnership and to other clinics in Michigan,” Moore said. “It’s really a very exciting time, we could be right around the corner from the next cisplatin.” 

Recently, Moore was awarded a highly prestigious $6.7 million grant from the NIH, to renovate space in the Radiology building and build the Global Center for Translational Medicine. Health tech giant Siemens is Moore’s partner in the endeavor and will be providing a $5 million clinical scanner to continue the biomedical research at MSU.

With support and resources, combined with her “where there’s a will there’s a way” attitude, Moore’s best work is being done for the benefit of all humankind—turns out all she needed was to be at Michigan State.