The protein known as transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) not only accelerates breast cancer spread — it also unexpectedly launched the career of one of City of Hope’s newest researchers.
When Shizhen Emily Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Tumor Cell Biology, first began her research career in the late 1990s, she focused on infectious disease, not oncology. As a virologist, she came to train her sites on the form of herpes virus that causes Kaposi’s sarcoma, an opportunistic cancer often associated with HIV infection and AIDS.
|Shizhen Emily Wang (Photo by p.cunningham)|
These studies opened her explorations into viral oncology.
“I saw an opportunity in oncology research for myself and decided to pursue that field,” said Wang. “The transition was difficult at the beginning, but I found that I really liked the field. Understanding cancer helps us to better understand normal cells.”
It was during her time at Vanderbilt University — which she joined as a postdoctoral fellow in 2002 — when Wang first encountered TGF-β’s relationship to breast cancer.
As Wang explains, in healthy normal tissue, TGF-β acts as a tumor suppressor. When breast cancer cells develop into an established tumor, though, TGF-β turns into a tumor promoter, helping along cancer’s survival and migration.
“TGF-β may play an active role in breast cancer stem cells,” said Wang. “I want to learn how it changes and how we can target it to develop better cancer therapies.”
Wang is investigating how the presence of oncogenes like HER2 can change the function of TGF-β. Her ongoing studies suggest that the two communicate and collaborate to help tumors grow and spread.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes in the work. In 2007, while still at Vanderbilt, Wang was awarded a 5-year NIH Pathway to Independence Award, or K99/R00, which was established to help postdoctoral fellows transition into independent researchers leading their own labs. The grant’s first two years are dedicated to mentoring, she said. During that time, she saw the potential of TGF-β. “I thought the possible interaction of growth factors and oncogenes together could be an independent line of investigation,” she said.
The requirement to establish independent research was a major factor in Wang’s decision of where to set up her lab. She wanted to establish distance between her continuing research and the Vanderbilt lab she was leaving. She also wanted to choose a location that could easily demonstrate a high level of institutional support, which is an important factor in continuing her NIH funding. Her experiences during her visits to City of Hope made her decision simple.
“I really like the collaborative environment at City of Hope,” said Wang.
Wang officially begins the independent research portion of her grant in July. She will continue her research into “crosstalk” between TGF-β and HER2 and intends to expand investigations into other cancers influenced by TGF-β. She already has spoken with City of Hope physicians to identify potential translational research collaborations that carry lab findings to patients.
Wang plans to submit a proposal for additional NIH funding.
“All cancers are different based on origin, but they can have something in common,” said Wang, who obtained her doctorate in molecular virology jointly from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nankai University in China. “Molecular biology can see those similarities and work on better understanding signal transduction. I would love to collaborate in other areas, too, like diabetes, to see if there is any crossover in signal transduction.”