It is hard to imagine anyone talking about cancer research with more optimism than Huiqing Wu, M.D.
Asked how he stays so upbeat, he doesn’t hesitate. Said Wu: “I like the idea of saving lives. My dream is that nobody will die from prostate cancer.”
As a City of Hope pathologist, Wu reviews slides of tissues removed during surgeries and uses his experience to share important facts about the tumors with patients’ oncologists, so the oncologists can recommend the best possible treatments. Although he sees almost all kinds of tumors, his lab research focuses mostly on prostate cancer.
More specifically, he looks for possible markers that would hint at which prostate tumors are deadly and which aren’t.
“Most patients with prostate cancer won’t die from the disease,” he explained. Most patients have tumors that are slow-growing.
“Based on earlier studies, if you treat 17 patients with prostate cancer, you only prevent one death from cancer. The critical issue is not just to diagnose cancer, but to find patients who carry aggressive types of cancer,” he explained.
In the United States, experts often advise surgery when patients have prostate cancer simply because physicians have no real way of knowing which of those 17 patients will end up having aggressive disease. Under today’s technology, not even studying biopsy specimens under a microscope or analyzing results from prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, tests can provide certainty.
According to Wu, increased PSA levels in the bloodstream don’t necessarily indicate how aggressive the disease is. “If we had better markers, we could help patients make decisions about who should have surgery and who should not,” he said.
Wu’s lab is analyzing tumor samples to determine whether two new types of biomarkers could identify highly aggressive prostate cancers. One type includes small RNA molecules, known as microRNAs. The other involves changes in DNA.
The ability to associate a specific molecular change with lethal prostate cancer could not only provide better diagnostic tools but also could suggest potential targets for new medications. “If we could block a target with a drug instead of surgery, it would be great,” Wu said.
Wu notes that such a target exists for metastasizing forms of kidney cancer. And as a side project, his lab is now trying to identify drugs to block the activity of that protein, which is also expressed in pancreatic, bladder and liver cancer.
That passion for shedding more light on prostate cancer reaches deep into his past: It comes from the profound frustration he experienced as a medical student.
“During my clerkship and internship I had patients with liver cancer. One had such pain,” he explained. “I was only in my early 20s, but I still remember his name. He held my hand and asked, ‘Can you save my life? — I have kids to raise.’
“I felt so sad and so bad — I even felt shame to wear this white coat. I decided that if I got any chance to do research to help these patients, I will.”
Now that he has that chance, Wu is making the most of it.