Young scientist award highlights cutting-edge cancer research
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.