Alaska Legislature honors UAA WWAMI professors

The 31st Alaska Legislature recently honored University of Alaska Anchorage professors Max Kullberg, Ph.D. and Holly Martinson, Ph.D. for their ground-breaking medical research and for teaching the next generation of medical students and undergraduate students in Alaska. 

Kullberg and Martison are part of a world-wide community of cancer researchers who share the aim of curing cancer. Their work has shown that Alaska’s university system can make a solid contribution to this vital area of research. Their cancer research laboratory, which is the only one in Alaska, is a magnet for top students across the country who are interested in studying cancer.

WWAMI is a collaborative medical school among universities in five northwestern states, Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho and the University of Washington School of Medicine. The curriculum at each site has been standardized and is compatible with the University of Washington School of Medicine curriculum which integrates the basic and clinical sciences, and includes rural health care at an early time in medical education.  For more than 45 years, Alaska WWAMI has provided Alaskans access to a high quality regional medical school.

Kullberg graduated as valedictorian from East High School in Anchorage. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he worked as a Laser Physics Researcher through the Caltech SURF program in Zurich, Switzerland in 1998, helping to develop Q-switched microchip lasers that can be used for a variety of applications.

Kullberg earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado. He received the Susan G. Komen Postdoctoral Fellowship Award from 2011-2014 for his work on developing a liposome delivery system. Kullberg teaches biochemistry and pharmacology to Alaska’s future medical doctors as an assistant professor for the WWAMI program.

Martinson was a UA scholar who received a research grant as an undergraduate student to examine how environmental pollutants detected in clams could contribute to human disease. She graduated from UAA with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry.

In graduate school, Martinson discovered found her calling as a cancer researcher at the University of Colorado, where she focused on the impact of the tumor microenvironment and immune cell infiltration on the development of breast cancer in young women. With the support of a doctoral award from the Department of Defense for Breast Cancer Research, Martinson identified an immune cell type that was central to promoting tumor growth and determined a treatment strategy that is being used in clinical trials today for women with breast cancer.

“I have always been interested in the role of the immune system in the initiation, promotion, and treatment of cancer,” said Martinson. “So, having the opportunity to be involved in a project that blended my interests in tumor immunology with the role of the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer was a perfect fit.”

In addition to teaching at the WWAMI School of Medicine, Martinson and Kullberg are co-investigators for a National Cancer Institute grant. Their research shows that modulation of immune cells in the tumor microenvironment can eliminate breast cancer in mice. Their work is also funded by the long-time support of the Alaska Run for Women. Kullberg and Martinson are married and have two children, Liv and Callum.  

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