Jefferson Researcher Receives Cancer Moonshot Award

Hien Dang, PhD, was one of 11 people awarded the prestigious award aimed at finding therapies for tough-to-treat cancers in patients who have been historically disadvantaged.
Hien Dang, PhD
Hien Dang, PhD (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

When cancer researcher, Hien Dang (pronounced Hee-in Dahn), PhD, got the call from the awards office for the National Cancer Institute’s Biden Cancer Moonshot Award, she caught her breath. In a very calm and matter-of-fact tone, the program officer told her it was all but certain she’d get the award. “I told him, ‘I’m so excited I don’t even know what to say to you,” Dr. Dang recalls. “I’m going to get off the phone now so I can yell and scream.’” She put down the phone, walked out of her office into her lab group, and did just that. “And then we celebrated. We all had put so much work into this award. I’m so honored that we are part of this incredible cohort of researchers.”

The Cancer Moonshot award specifically aims to fund a diverse group of early-career researchers working on cancers that affect socially disadvantaged populations most. This first group of 11 awardees will receive funding for a five-year project.

Dr. Dang studies liver cancer, which is notoriously difficult to treat and is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. The rate of death for this cancer has increased more than 40% in the past 50 years, and is more common in Hispanics, Blacks, and Asian Pacific Islanders.

Dr. Dang’s ambitious research goes after a white whale of cancer biology: a gene called MYC that is involved in 70% of all cancers, and in 80% of liver cancers. Despite being so critical, no one has been able to develop a successful drug against it. In part because the gene, when it’s working right, is involved in many normal, healthy processes in our bodies. “They call MYC ‘undruggable’,” says Dr. Dang, a researcher with the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center — Jefferson Health. “But our lab discovered a molecule that seems to control MYC when it leads to cancer in the liver. It’s called NELFE (pronounced, ‘nelfie’). We’re hoping we can use NELFE to entrap MYC, and stop cancer growth, but we have a lot more to learn, which is what this award is all about.”

Learn more about Dr. Dang’s project, why she decided to focus on liver cancer, and her tricks for staying motivated in a line of work that regularly kicks up obstacles.

Q What do you hope to accomplish with this award?

We hope we’ll get one step closer to treating liver cancer. It’s a disease that disproportionately affects socially disadvantaged people. Liver cancer develops from hepatitis infections and can also develop from scarring and fatty liver disease, which is on the rise. Most people discover they have liver cancer after the cancer has spread and is much more difficult to treat. My lab is working really hard to understand how we could use NELFE to get at MYC. We think that reducing NELFE in liver cancer cells might slow or even stop the liver cancer’s growth, but we have a lot of work to do before we can prove that’s the case. Right now, we need to learn more about how NELFE works in normal cells and in liver cancer.

Growing up in Michigan, I was just a nerd who enjoyed science.

-Hien Dang

But while we work on the basics, we’re already looking at the end-goal, which is a new therapy for people with this disease. At the end of five years, we hope to have a new therapy to test that is transferrable to humans. We’re interested in collaborating with other Jefferson researchers to package our therapy in microbubbles. These microbubbles would build up in the cancer and once they do, we can pop them with ultrasound, so that a potent dose of the therapy is delivered directly to the cancers. This approach should help reduce the possibility of side effects.

Q What connects you to this work?

Where I come from a lot of people have liver cancer and they don’t see the doctor until it’s too late. My family fled Vietnam when I was seven. We were in a Philippine refugee camp for a year before moving to Michigan. I only remember good things from that time: climbing cherry trees, a really great teacher, a group of friends I remember playing with. I also remember being really cold when we got to Michigan. We only had the clothes with us that you’d wear in a tropical climate.

I didn’t always know I wanted to work on liver cancer, though. Growing up in Michigan, I was just a nerd who enjoyed science, and whenever anyone gave me an opportunity, I jumped on it. When I went to grad school one of my mentors was studying cancer stem cells and liver cancer, and I thought, this is probably one of those cancers that I should study. It’s giving back to the community.

Hien Dang Lab
Hien Dang laboratory from left to right: Brittany Ruiz, Ryuku Irobe, Anna Barry-Wolbers, Alvaro Lucci, Hien Dang, Meghan Grim, Kasonde Chewe, and Laura Reynolds

Q Research is challenging. How do you keep your team motivated?

My labs are separated into two sections, and we’ve named them the Batman section, where I have my office, and the Robin section, where all of the graduate, masters and other “trainees” work. Just like Batman trained Robin to be a superhero, we train our students to be the next great researchers.

I also draw on quotes a lot. There’s a favorite one from Mike Tyson that I probably use once a week. It goes, “Everyone always has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s what it feels like when you do science. We do these experiments and have elaborate plans but a lot of the time they just fail and that’s exactly how it feels. It’s part of the process.

We also like to say “trust but verify,” which is a translation of a Russian rhyming proverb that Ronald Reagan often quoted during negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Everything we observe in the lab, every time we think we have good news, we take the time to verify and test from a different angle to make sure we’re right. This is another really important part of research – you always have to take that extra step.

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