Department of Pharmacology & Chemical Biology at the University of Pittsburgh
Daniel Johnson, PhD
Professor, Medicine
2.18 Hillman Cancer Center
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Phone: 412-623-3245

Fax: 412-623-7768


BA (Mathematics), North Park College, Chicago, IL, 1982.
BS (Chemistry), North Park College, Chicago, IL, 1982.
PhD (Molecular Biology), Princeton University, 1988.
Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, 1988-1993.

Research Areas
Cancer Pharmacology
Drug Discovery
Photo of Daniel Johnson, PhD

Dr. Johnson’s laboratory works on three major projects.  The first project is aimed at elucidating molecular mechanisms that regulate myeloid differentiation, with a long-term goal of translating laboratory findings into clinical trials for leukemia patients.  These studies have determined that activation of the MEK/ERK kinase signaling pathway is critically important for chemical- and cytokine-induced differentiation of normal myeloid progenitors.  A transgenic model has been developed that allows inducible expression of a constitutively-active MEK enzyme exclusively in myeloid lineage cells.  Ongoing characterization of this model is allowing assessment of the in vivo role of the MEK/ERK pathway in myelopoiesis and leukemia development.  Additionally, Dr. Johnson’s lab has shown that Src Family Kinases (SFKs), which are frequently hyperactivated in leukemias, act to negatively regulate myeloid differentiation.  Molecular targets of SFKs in myeloid cells are currently being identified via microarray and proteomic approaches.  Moreover, these studies have led to the development of an ongoing clinical trial in acute myeloid leukemia patients that incorporates an SFK inhibitor (dasatinib) in combination with a differentiation agent (ATRA).  Analysis of patient specimens from this trial is expected to provide further insight regarding the in vivo role of SFKs in leukemia.

The second project in Dr. Johnson’s lab involves determination of the mechanisms of chemotherapy resistance in head and neck cancer, and evaluation of small molecule inhibitors of Bcl-2 family members.  These studies have revealed that anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members (Bcl-2, Bcl-XL, Mcl-1) are overexpressed in head and neck cancers.  Targeted inhibition of these anti-apoptotic proteins using a variety of cutting-edge small molecule inhibitors dramatically enhanced the sensitivities of head and neck cancer cells to conventional chemotherapy drugs.  These preclinical studies are being used to design novel therapeutic strategies for clinical testing in head and neck cancer patients.

The third project in Dr. Johnson’s lab aims to investigate the mechanisms and impact of next-generation proteasome inhibitors on in vitro and in vivo growth of head and neck cancer cells.  These studies have shown that proteasome inhibitors induce upregulation of pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members (Bik and Bim) that are required for cell killing by these compounds.  Additionally, proteasome inhibitors induce the expression of anti-apoptotic Mcl-1, as well as STAT-3, which act to attenuate killing by the compounds.  Pharmacologic inhibition of Mcl-1 or STAT-3 served to markedly enhance the abilities of proteasome inhibitors to kill head and neck cancer cells.  The anti-tumor efficacies of these combinatorial approaches are currently being evaluated using in vivo models. 

Important Publications
Kropf PL, L Wang, Y Zang, RL Redner and DE Johnson.  Dasatinib promotes ATRA-induced differentation of AML cells.  Leukemia 24:663-665, 2010.
Li R, Y Zang, C Li, NS Patel, JR Grandis and DE Johnson.  ABT-737 synergizes with chemotherapy to kill head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells via a Noxa-mediated pathway.  Molecular Pharmacology 75:1231-1239, 2009.
Li C, Y Zang, M Sen, RJ Leeman-Neill, DS Man, JR Grandis and DE Johnson.  Bortezomib upregulates activated STAT3 and synergizes with inhibitors of STAT3 to promote head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell death.  Molecular Cancer Therapeutics 8:2211-2220, 2009.
Jones JE, L Wang, PL Kropf, R Duan and DE Johnson.  Scr family kinase gene targets during myeloid differentiation:  Identification of the EGR-1 gene as a direct target.  Leukemia 23:1933-1935, 2009.
Miranda MB, R Duan, SM Thomas, JR Grandis, RL Redner, JE Jones and DE Johnson.  Gefitinib potentiates myeloid cell differentation by ATRA.  Leukemia 22:1624-1627, 2008.
Li C, R Li, JR Grandis and DE Johnson.  Bortezomib induces apoptotis via Bim and Bik upregulation and synergizes with cisplatin in the killing of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells.  Molecular Cancer Therapeutics 7:1647-1655, 2008.
Li R, AL Boehm, MB Miranda, S Shangary, JR Grandis and DE Johnson.  Targeting antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family members with cell-permeable BH3 peptides induces apoptosis signaling and death in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells.  Neoplasia 9:801-811, 2007.   

Miranda MB, RL Redner and DE Johnson.  Inhibition of Src family kinases enhances retinoic acid-induced gene expression and myeloid differentiation.  Molecular Cancer Therapeutics 6:3081-3089, 2007. 

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