Joseph Kim, M.D., wants to do more than banish cancer with a scalpel. He wants to know it, understand it and see what makes it tick — to better help his patients beat it.
Kim, assistant professor in the Division of Surgery, stands as one of the newest members of City of Hope’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Program, treating patients with pancreatic, colorectal and liver cancers. But he is equally at home at a lab bench, studying the intricacies of the cells that give rise to patients’ malignancies.
Particularly interested in the mysteries behind pancreatic cancer, Kim performed laboratory research for two years during his fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and John Wayne Cancer Institute, where he worked most recently before moving to City of Hope in July.
“Surgeons are always looking for challenges, and some of the challenges in research are more difficult to overcome than in surgery,” explained Kim, whose mentors during residency also combined basic science and surgery.
“As surgeons, we deal with clinical problems and, thereby, realize the specific questions that need to be asked and answered in the laboratory. So performing research on the problem allows me to truly take something from the bench to the bedside,” he added.
Kim already has collected a variety of collaborators, both at City of Hope and his previous institutions, including the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he performed his surgical residency after graduating from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. His research interests include molecular markers of cancer, as well as basic research on chemokine receptors.
Molecular markers are altered gene sequences, expression levels or proteins that can serve as clues to cancer. Scientists are doggedly exploring molecular markers’ potential to detect cancer, predict patients’ prognoses and monitor patients’ response to therapy. Kim studies molecular markers through several Southwest Oncology Group clinical trials.
And in his own research, he believes molecular markers may shine light on something gastrointestinal surgeons have long observed: that cancer quickly recurs in many pancreatic cancer patients after surgery. “We want to know: Can we find markers in blood, pancreatic tissue and abdominal fluid that can predict recurrence?” he said.
With the collaboration of fellow surgeons, as well as scientists such as Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D., chair of biology, and Art Riggs, Ph.D., director of Beckman Research Institute and professor of biology, Kim plans to explore links between recurrence and molecular markers tied to known mutations in genes such as K-ras and p53, as well as certain DNA methylation sites. Kim hopes such markers eventually will result in better, customized treatments for pancreatic cancer patients. He will pursue similar research in patients with colorectal cancer metastasis to the liver.
Kim also studies chemokine receptors, molecules that play a role in cancer, inflammation and infectious disease. He has targeted CXCR4, a seemingly obscure molecule he happened upon a few years ago during an Internet search. He and colleagues soon found that CXCR4 helps colorectal cancer spread. “It hadn’t been investigated in gastrointestinal cancer,” he said, “but now the research has taken on a life of its own.”
The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research so believes in the work’s potential that it recently awarded Kim a grant to pursue targeting CXCR4 to prevent pancreatic cancer.
But people remain at the heart of why Kim does what he does. He focuses on gastrointestinal cancers, in part, because the cancers are prevalent among his fellow Korean-Americans and others of Asian descent. He hopes to make a difference in Asian-Americans’ struggles with the cancers, and has begun exploring research with Division of Population Sciences colleagues to explore reasons behind disappointing outcomes for many of these cancer patients.
“Part of the reason I came here was this community,” Kim said. “It’s something I feel a calling for.”