Young sci­en­tist award high­lights cut­ting-edge cancer re­search

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Chris Davis Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­

Lu Chao has had a long-stand­ing in­ter­est in bi­ol­ogy since he was a kid grow­ing up in Nan­jing. He ma­jored in it in col­lege at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, and it was there that he came to the re­al­iza­tion that bi­o­log­i­cal re­search could ac­tu­ally have an im­pact on peo­ple, it was a sci­ence “that could ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit so­ci­ety in a very sub­stan­tial way’’, as he put it.

Fo­cus­ing on bio­med­i­cine, he went for his PhD at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and is now do­ing post-doc at Rock­e­feller Univer­sity here in New York try­ing to un­ravel the un­der­ly­ing causes of cancer. And in recog­ni­tion of his progress so far, the 33-year-old sci­en­tist has just re­ceived a 2017 Blavat­nik Young Sci­en­tist Award.

Ac­cord­ing to the ci­ta­tion, Lu is be­ing hon­ored with the $30,000 prize “for iden­ti­fy­ing chem­i­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tions to our chro­mo­somes that lead to un­con­trolled growth and pro­lif­er­a­tion of cells, and sub­se­quently, to the for­ma­tion of tu­mors’’. He took a few min­utes to de­scribe his work.

There are very so­phis­ti­cated mech­a­nisms that pack­age our DNA into cells and mech­a­nisms to ac­cess the DNA when it’s needed to turn a gene on and ac­cess the ge­netic in­for­ma­tion. Lu has been study­ing what hap­pens when those mech­a­nisms go awry, he ex­plained.

“You have to pack­age the DNA to fit it into [the cell],” he said. “Hu­man DNA is about 2 me­ters long if you stretch it in lin­ear form, but cells are much smaller than that, so you need ways to fit this long strand into a tiny cell.”

How­ever, when it is in its pack­age, it can’t be ac­cessed or trans­lated into cod­ing, so there have to be other ways to ac­cess it when it’s needed.

He has fo­cused on one dis­ease in par­tic­u­lar — pe­di­atric un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated sar­coma — a very rare but very ag­gres­sive dis­ease. He found that there were mu­ta­tions in the pro­teins used to pack­age the DNA in 98 per­cent of the can­cers and he set out to learn how the mu­ta­tion helped the cancer to grow.

Us­ing the mu­ta­tion as a marker to dis­tin­guish the ag­gres­sive form of the dis­ease from the non-ag­gres­sive form could, he sug­gests, have an im­pact on the treat­ment of the dis­ease in the not too dis­tant fu­ture.

“Now that we know how this mu­ta­tion helps the cancer grow and spread, we can de­sign strate­gies to re­verse the process,” he said.

The same kinds of mu­ta­tions in DNA pack­ag­ing have been found in some neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­eases, and Lu hopes to look into those in the fu­ture and try to find a com­mon thread, an un­der­ly­ing uni­fy­ing patho­gen­e­sis.

Lu has demon­strated that th­ese ab­nor­mal changes cause cancer by block­ing cel­lu­lar “dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion” — the nor­mal process generic cells go through to trans­form, grow and di­vide into spe­cial­ized cells like neu­rons or kid­ney cells.

When dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is blocked, th­ese cells grow and di­vide rapidly, lead­ing to tu­mor for­ma­tion.

Lu found that by cor­rect­ing this ab­nor­mal­ity he could halt the growth of tu­mors, ef­fec­tively “re­pro­gram­ming” the cancer cell back to health. A cancer treat­ment that can al­ter cancer cells rather than kill them would be far less toxic for the pa­tient.

On a per­sonal level, Lu says the Blavat­nik Award is sat­is­fy­ing be­cause it means his team’s work is be­ing rec­og­nized by col­leagues in the field and hav­ing an im­pact.

Also, at a time when many young sci­en­tists are strug­gling to find fund­ing or a job, the prize is a good sign and “en­cour­ag­ing to young sci­en­tists to pur­sue their pas­sion’’, Lu said, adding that he hopes other pri­vate foun­da­tions fol­low Blavat­nik’s lead to keep young peo­ple in sci­ence, es­pe­cially as govern­ment fund­ing has been de­clin­ing. He hopes more young peo­ple will be able to stay in sci­ence and not have to look else­where for work.

Chao Lu

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