Big Ideas

Je Lee, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Je Lee is not afraid to dream. At 10 years old, Lee and his family moved from their home in South Korea to Anchorage, Alaska. What followed was a career path with a diversified research background that has led him to believe funding for innovative research is a necessity and a focus on technology can not only lead to improvements in treatment, but also making care for cancer patients less financially burdening.

“Through my studies at Tufts and my internal medicine training at Penn, I developed an obsession with trying to understand how single cells with simple rules can generate complex spatial patterns,” said Lee. “It was at Harvard, when I joined the lab of Dr. George Church, who is a pioneer in genome sequencing technologies, that I developed microscopy methods for quantifying active genes inside cells and tissues using 3D imaging.”

Lee and his team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York are now developing new methods for genome analysis without having to extract DNA or RNA from tissue, thus making it easier to see the difference between cancer and normal neighboring cells. “We are investigating the earliest genetic changes in cancer-initiating cells, their normal neighboring cells, and recruited immune cells as the tumor becomes progressively abnormal,” said Lee. He uses the analogy of soil. Basically, they take genetic snapshots of where the cancer cells “seed” and examine their ability to support tumor growth. Lee’s hope is this approach will lead to new discoveries that can help define molecular signatures associated with various stages of cancer. This would help determine chemo-resistance, thus improving the ability to treat those types of cancers.

We want to focus on technologies that have a positive impact on making health care more affordable, actionable and immediate.

While such technologies may help to improve the accuracy of diagnoses, Lee said he also feels future research needs to address the economics of modern genetic tools in treatment of cancer. “We want to focus on technologies that have a positive impact on making health care more affordable, actionable and immediate. Our lab’s focus on ways to turn whole genome sequencing technologies into simple dyes to stain cancer tissues may be one step of many that could help make precision medicine more affordable.”

The importance of funding from organizations like the V Foundation is clear to Lee, a 2015 V Scholar, but it is also an affirmation that the work being done is being recognized by an esteemed group such as the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. “The V Foundation grant has been absolutely instrumental in setting priorities, getting questions, collaborators and specimen together and testing the feasibility of our proposals,” Lee said. “It also made us enormously proud that we are working on questions and technologies that other researchers and clinicians find promising.”

Lee knows the answers to a victory over cancer are complex, but with continued funding and creative minds willing to think outside the box, there is hope for the future.

“Funding a variety of researchers who take very different and often out-of-the-mainstream approaches are absolutely crucial for big paradigm shifts. If we can take steps toward making cancer treatment more efficacious, less toxic, more durable and more affordable, so that we can manage the disease like the way we do for diabetes, we will have reached a big milestone. Together, I hope we can make a meaningful progress in the fight against cancer.”