Meet our doctors: How Leo Wang is revolutionizing the way that pediatric and blood cancers are treated
March 17, 2017
| by Denise Heady
Photo by Susan Mona on behalf of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation
Leo Wang, M.D., Ph.D., moved to Southern California for a very specific reason: to revolutionize the way that pediatric and blood cancers are treated.
While moving to enrich a career may be commonplace, his goal is anything but ordinary.
The dual-trained pediatric oncologist and scientist is working in the lab to understand how blood cells develop and grow, and plans to use that information to help patients with cancer live longer and experience fewer side effects of treatment.
In order to make his vision possible, he needed to find a place that is committed to quickly speeding scientific breakthroughs into practical benefit for patients worldwide.
That place was City of Hope.
“The thing that was most exciting about City of Hope was the intense and unwavering commitment to translational therapeutics,” said Wang. “The idea that a promising idea in the lab can get into the clinic quickly enough to make a difference is really attractive.
“The [Beckman Research Institute] has a strong dedication to patients and to getting promising therapies into the clinic as quickly as possible — which doesn't really exist anywhere else. It’s really unique to this place.”
Pediatric oncologist and scientist Leo Wang, M.D., Ph.D.
Understanding cancer before it’s cancer
Wang, an assistant professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Immuno-Oncology, leads a research team that is focused on understanding how blood cells develop and grow, how they move around the body, how they turn into cancer cells and how to use that information to help improve cancer treatment.
More precisely, he uses novel mass spectrometry-based phosphoproteomic techniques to identify targetable activation pathways in small numbers of rare blood stem cells.
“In order to figure out better ways to treat blood cancers, we need to know why leukemia stem cells are so hard to kill,” said Wang. “Because these cells are rare, they are hard to study. But we’ve developed new ways to look at the proteins in these cells that are responsible for their unique ability to survive.”
To better study these rare cells, Wang and his team look at protein circuitry, focusing on which proteins are activated or inactivated to cause stem cells to act differently from neighbor cells that aren’t stem cells. This field, called proteomics, is a strength at City of Hope but promises to be made even stronger with an influx of new talent and new equipment.
Along with studying proteomics, Wang is excited to build City of Hope’s pediatric immuno-oncology program. One of his first efforts will be to bring CAR-T cell therapy for brain tumors to the pediatric clinic.
CAR-T cell therapy is one of the most innovative ways to train the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. At City of Hope, this type of therapy has already shown promising results for adults with blood cancers and advanced brain tumors.
“When we put these cells into patients with brain tumors they’re great at killing cancer cells and only cancer cells,” said Wang. “One of the big remaining challenges with these cells in solid tumors, though, is that they tend to disappear quickly. One of the things I want to do at City of Hope is to figure out how to make brain tumor targeted CAR-T cells last long and work better.”
Using patients for inspiration in the lab and using science to make patients’ lives better
While Wang has no problem describing the complexities of proteomics, CAR-T cells and how to transform cancer research, when you ask him to describe what it’s like to work with pediatric cancer patients, he struggles to find the right words.
“It's an amazing experience that is difficult to put into words,” said Wang. “I cannot overstate how much of an honor and a privilege it is to be permitted to work with these patients and their families, and to completely and unreservedly be let into their lives.”
From a young age, Wang always knew that he would have a future in medicine. His dad was a physician and he always seemed to be around doctors and scientists. But it wasn’t until he was a resident that he truly knew what he was really supposed to do.
“When I was a pediatrics resident, I was gone all the time,” said Wang. “I had young kids, and was missing out on a lot of my children’s development. The one time when I felt that it was completely justified was when I was taking care of kids who had cancer. Actually, it felt more than justified. It felt necessary.”
Working with children who are ill can be difficult, and just because you spend years in this field doesn’t mean it will get any easier. One of the best pieces of advice Wang received during residency was “if it does start getting easier, it’s probably time to quit.”
“I think that really rings true,” said Wang. “Obviously, you have to be able to do your job; you can't let emotion detract from your ability to be clear-eyed and to think about what's best for the patient and family, or to provide the best possible care. But you also need to find a way to make the emotions serve that purpose. All my patients change me, and they all make me a better doctor.”
Completing the vision
Besides the commitment to translational therapeutics, Wang came to City of Hope because of the leadership vision from City of Hope’s Provost and Chief Scientific Officer Steven T. Rosen, M.D.
Rosen’s vision for City of Hope in five years is something Wang is really excited to be a part of. And the conviction and commitment with which Rosen is implementing that vision is truly impressive, notes Wang.
“City of Hope is not just the name of the institute; it’s also the mission. When you wake up every morning, you have the opportunity to choose between hope and despair – to decide whether to look forward or backward. I wanted to be in a place where everybody, every day, is choosing hope, and choosing to move forward. That’s what this place is. “