It is hard to imagine anyone talking about cancer research with more optimism than Huiqing Wu, M.D.
Whether he describes late nights as a staff pathologist at City of Hope or his “other job” as assistant professor in the Division of Pathology, Wu maintains a sunny outlook. Asked how he stays so upbeat, he does not hesitate: “I like the idea of saving lives. My dream is that nobody will die from prostate cancer.”
Wu began exploring prostate cancer during his clinical and research fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Working closely with renowned prostate cancer researcher Mark Rubin, M.D., Wu dove into prostate research.
He began setting up his two shops at City of Hope in 2006. As a pathologist, Wu reviews slides of surgical specimens representing almost all tumor types. But his laboratory research focuses primarily on identifying prognostic markers of lethal forms of prostate cancer.
“Most patients with prostate cancer won’t die from the disease,” he explained, noting that most patients have tumors that are slow-growing, or indolent. “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.”
In the United States, experts advise surgical removal of the prostate gland for many patients with prostate cancer simply because physicians have no ideal indicator — including microscopic evaluation of biopsy specimens or the well-known prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, test — that can provide a clue about which of those 17 patients will have aggressive disease.
According to Wu, increased PSA levels in the bloodstream do not necessarily mean agressive disease. “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 human tumor samples to determine whether two new types of biomarkers could identify highly aggressive prostate cancers. One subclass includes small RNA molecules, known as microRNAs. The other is a group of chromosome rearrangements or deletions frequently seen in prostate cancer cells. Such DNA aberrations likely play a role in carcinogenesis and disease aggressiveness.
The ability to associate a specific molecular change with lethal prostate cancer could not only provide better diagnostic tools but also could present potential therapeutic targets. “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.
Wu’s passion for finding cancer cures is not newfound: It is based on 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 get any chance to do research to help these patients, I will.”
Now that he has that chance, Wu is making the most of it.