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Research Week 2018: Everything but the cancer, looking beyond the disease

The Marks lab aims to improve longevity, quality of life by studying ‘how every aspect of the human body works together’
man with shaved head, sitting at his desk, looking at camera
Dan Marks, M.D., Ph.D., aims to improve longevity and quality of life by studying how all aspects of the human body work together. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

At age 8, Dan Marks knew he wanted to be a pediatrician.

Nearly three decades later, he became a pediatric endocrinologist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, specializing in endocrine disorders, diabetes and obesity. However, it wasn’t until his first year of undergraduate biology that Marks learned he also wanted to be a scientist.

“As soon as I looked into a microscope and saw a transparent zebrafish embryo, I was hooked,” he recalled. “Medicine was cool, but science was cooler. I was going to do both.”

And, he has.

Whole body impact

Throughout his clinical and scientific career, Marks has been drawn to complicated system-wide diseases such as cachexia, or the weakening and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness or infection.

In most cases, the severity of cachexia may be the primary determinant for a patient’s quality of life, as well as eventual mortality. Effective pharmaceutical treatments are not available, and the central mechanisms of the disorder are not fully understood.

Marks hopes to change this.

The philosophy of his lab hinges on the idea of “whole animal physiology,” or the way that every aspect of the human body works together. 

If you consider a patient battling cancer, “there are likely many people working to kill the cancer cells or remove a tumor. However, there are fewer people paying attention to the resiliency of the rest of the body surrounding that cancer. My lab is interested in that … everything but the cancer,” Marks says.

Following this idea, Marks and colleagues have published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles chronicling key scientific findings that describe:

  • The role that weight-regulating hormones play in cachexia derived from cancer or kidney disease.
  • The discovery that both weight gain and loss is regulated by the same brain receptor.
  • Why cancer patients receiving chemotherapy become fatigued.
  • That a person’s heart muscles weaken at a similar rate to skeletal muscles, increasing symptoms of cachexia in various chronic conditions.
middle aged man, wearing suit, with a shaved head and glasses, sitting behind desk looking at camera
If you consider a patient battling cancer, “there are likely many people working to kill the cancer cells or remove a tumor. However, there are fewer people paying attention to the resiliency of the rest of the body surrounding that cancer. My lab is interested in that … everything but the cancer,” Marks says. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Solving Cachexia

Most importantly, according to Marks, cachexia can be treated independently from cancer, renal disease or HIV/AIDs: “It is not simply an unfortunate side effect of chronic disease. It is a completely understandable neurological state that when treated, would not only enhance quality of life, but the chance of survival as well.”

Although his research findings are already being used by multiple pharmaceutical companies to develop and test drugs to treat cachexia, Marks plans to further expand existing understandings of the disorder, ushering in additional opportunities for new treatment.

He is embarking on a new project, based on a five-year grant totaling more than $2 million* from the National Cancer Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, to research the mechanisms of cachexia and cognitive decline in patients diagnosed with various forms of cancer. He anticipates that the results will help to identify opportunities to limit the impacts of cachexia symptoms in the brain.

Additionally, using a model based on known signs of cachexia and decreased body movements, Marks, in partnership with leading technology manufacturers, plans to analyze data from smart watches, cell phones and personal activity trackers to identify early warning signs of cancer and other chronic conditions.

Despite his ongoing success in the lab as well as the clinic, Marks says his finest accomplishments come in the form of mentorship: “The greatest job satisfaction I have is watching those I have mentored eclipse my scientific achievements and move on to their own glory. That’s the best reward I could ask for.”


Daniel Marks, M.D., Ph.D., is the Credit Unions for Kids Professor of Pediatric Research at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital; professor, director of the pediatric fellowship program and associate director of the M.D./Ph.D. program in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Marks also serves as director of the Patient Resiliency Program for the 
Brenden-Colson Center for Pancreati Care at OHSU and as a consulting senior scientific adviser for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he studies growth stunting in resource-restricted environments.

*Award has been granted, funding pending until notice of award is issued.

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