Mike Y. Chen is at home both in the lab and the operating room.
Mike Y. Chen, M.D., Ph.D., is of two minds.
He's aggressive and cautious. As a surgeon, he's always looking for ways to destroy all the cancer in a patient's brain or spine, but he also proceeds carefully to prevent damage to the healthy tissue of the nervous system that is vital to thoughts and actions.
He's a physician and a researcher. He focuses his work on the people and families hurt by cancer, but he also is driven to discover the science behind the disease.
His fascination with medicine goes back to his childhood. "I had grown up wanting to help build the 'Six Million Dollar Man,'" says Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. "I thought that the point of medicine was to understand how to live longer. I was interested in science giving us a bit more control of that."
He pursued his medical degree at Thomas Jefferson University, but also took time for a master's in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. Later, he earned a doctorate from the Medical College of Virginia.
Between the lab and the operating room, Chen straddles two worlds.
"Science potentially has greater impact for humanity, but achievements take years and decades. Surgery is immediate gratification," says Chen. "It requires a lot of sacrifice to do both patient care and basic science, but the insights of a clinician catalyze and focus the science, creating a valuable synergy."
Chen recently testified in front of a Congressional committee, stating the case for supporting cancer research.
"My goal was to show the policymakers that amazing therapies — the stuff of science fiction — are on the horizon," says Chen. "At the same time, Congress had to be given realistic expectations concerning developmental timelines. I gave gene therapy as a prime example. The promise and excitement about gene therapy in its earliest days was tremendous, but development was slow and some patients died in initial clinical trials.
"It was only after two decades that cancer gene therapy finally became a reality. Congress needed to understand the depth of investment needed to make these kind of advances," he says.
Chen studies the biology and genetics of cancer that spreads, or metastasizes, to the brain and spinal column. Ever of two minds, Chen is hopeful about progress but guarded.
"I don’t think it's likely that researchers will be able to develop a magic bullet for cancer, one treatment for all the different types of tumors," he says. "But look at what we've been able to do in the past 40 years since the country made cancer a national priority."
He sees City of Hope as the right place to move his research forward.
"City of Hope is one of the few institutions in the country, maybe even the world, where I know I will be given every opportunity to develop novel therapies in the laboratory and bring that therapy directly to patients," he says.
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