What are your current research interests and/or what is a project you are currently working on?
My laboratory primarily focuses on the pathogenesis of breast cancer. We have two major ongoing projects funded by NIH:
- How the immune system controls or promotes cancer under different pathological or therapeutic conditions. This project defines a unique interaction between obesity and breast cancer pathogenesis by stimulating cancer-infiltrating macrophages, and the subsequent inflammasome/interleukin-1beta activation. We continue to understand how inflammasome is activated under obesity and how interleukin-1beta passes obesity-specific signals to neoangiogenesis in cancer.
- How epithelial cell-intrinsic signaling pathways are altered during cancer development. The second project defines two different populations of cell-of-origins for breast cancer, from both luminal and basal mammary epithelial cells. We identified a novel tumor suppressor CD177 that is expressed on surface of both lineages and inhibits tumorigenesis and relapse. We further found that these two layers of mammary epithelial cells regulate each other by initiating a paracrine and autocrine Wnt signaling.
In addition, our laboratory has expanded in the last several years. One particular fast-growing field is the role DNA repair pathways in regulating immune microenvironment and cancer therapy. We have identified that mismatch repair pathway is critical for basal-like breast cancer pathogenesis and progression. Most importantly, we found that genetic inhibition of this DNA repair pathway leads to altered immune cell composition in breast cancer, which could be potentially sensitizing basal like breast cancer to immunotherapy. This project is currently funded by DOD Breast Cancer Breakthrough Grant.
Who or what has inspired you to pursue this career?
Becoming a scientist was a dream to me since I was kid. Of course, career choice comes from various reasons. For me, it is a path that just naturally occurs but is deeply influenced by one outstanding scientist, Dr. Lu-Hai Wang (my Ph.D. mentor). His persistence and positive attitudes in science is the fundamental inspiration for me to pursue this career path. My postdoc training in the Karin laboratory advanced my knowledge and expertise to another level that paves my way into an independent position. Dr. Wang is my greatest inspiration and leads me to the door; Dr. Karin pushes me through the door to my current career choice.
What do you want to achieve with your work and/or in your career?
My goal is to develop some of our research products into translational and clinical applications down the road. The ultimate goal of cancer research is to benefit cancer patients. I will be also very satisfied if our research can influence other scientists or companies to make drug discovery as well. It is still impossible to say we will cure cancer in a decade or two, but I do want to make efforts to train the next generation of scientists or clinicians in the laboratory. I believe they will do a much better jobs due to advances in technology and science and cure cancer for all down the road.
What excites you about your work? What is exciting to you about your field right now?
My works excites me every day. I like to identify problems and raise questions within my research area and develop experimental strategy to resolve them. I like to publish our work to help other scientists and clinicians to rethink about novel options for cancer patients. I like to write grant applications for supporting our research, trainees and staff. Most importantly, I like to train my students, postdoctoral and clinical fellows to be a great thinker on a daily basis and urge them to become the next generation of scientists. These excitements drive me to work hard and happy every day.
Cancer research has been a very fast growing field and cancer immunotherapy is no doubt the center of attention lately. Not only has immunotherapy cured many otherwise incurable cancer patients, but it received general recognition last year when the Nobel Prize was awarded to two outstanding scientists, Drs. James Allison and Tasuku Honjo. The limitation is that only a small percentage of cancer patients can benefit from immunotherapy. Our research focus is to identify other means of boosting the efficacy of immunotherapy to benefit majority patient populations.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I haven’t mentioned that my research program is only one of my babies – I have two sons of 3 years old and 1 year old, respectively. My hands are tied with them while I am not thinking about science. I love to play with them and watch them grow every day. I enjoy many things including getting together with friends, watching movies, driving around for sightseeing, traveling to different places and more.