October 17, 2016 | by Denise Heady
Twenty-six-year-old Dongrui Wang always knew he wanted to be a scientist when he grew up.
And now, as a third-year graduate student at City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, not only is he pursing his childhood passion for science, he is thriving.
Wang’s poster presentation at the 19th annual American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGCT) this past May was selected as the conference’s Outstanding Poster Presentation for his research initiatives in gene and cell therapy.
Wang is currently working in the lab of Christine Brown, Ph.D., the Heritage Provider Network Professor in Immunotherapy and associate director of the T Cell Therapeutics Research Laboratory, and Stephen J. Forman, M.D., Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, studying CAR T cell therapy as a way to treat glioblastoma. In this type of therapy, T cells are isolated from a sample of the patient’s blood, and then genetically engineered to seek out and attack a specific cancer.
Here Wang, the 2014 H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation Fellow, talks about what motivated him to pursue a career in science, what keeps him inspired and the innovative research he is working on at City of Hope.
When did you first know you wanted become a researcher?
“It probably started in primary school when I became very interested in science. After finishing high school I decided to pursue my education in life sciences. The more I dug in to it, the more interested I became in the field.”
Why did you decide to study cancer?
“My goal is to help patients. Cancer is such a devastating disease and our current standard of treatment sometimes only modestly helps their condition. We’re trying to develop new therapies that can help improve the outcome of those cancer patients.”
What do you like most about City of Hope?
“The best choice I ever made since I decided to pursue a career in science was to come to City of Hope and to join Dr. Forman’s lab. It’s such a great lab with a friendly environment and good mentorship from Dr. Forman, Dr. Brown and all the other members of their lab. The environment really matters a lot for students and the graduate school here allows the flexibility for us students to select any lab that we would like to join, which opened up the chance for me to work in this lab."
What have these mentors taught you?
“I received a lot of help as well as inspiration from my mentors, who are so enthusiastic to study science and to treat patients. They have provided me so much encouragement and taught me to do research independently, giving me a lot of freedom to pursue anything that interests me."
What keeps you motivated as a scientist?
“There are really two things: One is how amazing the science is. When we are trying to answer one question, we are always finding more than we anticipate, which can make us a little exhausted sometimes, but it’s so interesting to really look into it and generate new findings. The process is so exciting.
Second, and more important, seeing our discoveries being applied to patients is even more exciting.
What advice would you give to high school and college students interested in pursuing a career in cancer research?
“Science is broad, but you have to find that particular area that most attracts you and interests you the most because you will have a lot of failures — way more failures than successes. That’s why you need to stay motivated and choose a topic of research that really excites you and it will help you to stay motivated.”
What do you view as your greatest scientific achievement to date?
“CAR T therapy has shown encouraging effects against several types of hematological malignancies,” Wang told ASGCT. “Those against solid tumors, however, have shown less potency regarding long-term tumor eradication. The lack of T cell persistence is one of the major reasons that CAR therapies fail against solid tumors. I have investigated on optimizing the appropriate composition of T cell subsets within the CAR T product, which will, at least partially, ameliorate T cell persistence and a subsequent anti-tumor immune response. These results are anticipated to lead to the improvements in CAR T cell manufacturing, which will hopefully improve the efficacy of this therapy against solid tumors.”