Big Ideas

Jun J. Yang, Ph.D.

You have two friends. They have the same type of cancer. They get the same treatment from the same doctor. One responds beautifully, with their cancer nearly disappearing. The other gets even sicker from the treatment which has no effect on their cancer. Due to the mysteries of genetics, this is all too   common, and often leaves doctors with more questions than answers. Dr. Jun J. Yang, who received a Translational Grant from the V Foundation in 2015, and his team are hard at work to find those answers.

Yang, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, is focused on how patients with the same cancers can get the same treatment but respond very differently. While some see an immediate positive response to a treatment, others suffer setbacks with debilitating toxicities or experience a persistent tumor burden, which shows the treatment isn’t working properly. This can have devastating consequences for patients, so Dr. Yang and his team are searching for a solution.

“Our research is aimed to figure out the genetic cause of such person-to-person differences in a response to a drug,” said Yang. “Knowing the cause would enable us to predict who will respond to what chemotherapeutic drug and therefore individualize therapy accordingly to ensure everyone gets the best and safest treatment.”

Yang has always had an interest in genetics, dating back to his youth in China, where he obtained his undergrad and master degrees. “The Human Genome Project had just started and we were working on genomic tools to find gene defects that cause hereditary diseases. I traveled all over the country to study large families with a variety of congenital abnormalities, and became really fascinated by human genetics and translational research,” said Yang.

That interest in genetics led Yang to Purdue University in Indiana in 2001 to obtain a Ph.D. in pharmacology and eventually landed him at St. Jude in 2006 for a postdoctoral fellowship. He started his own research group in 2010, which began his deeper dive into how a patient’s genetic make-up can inform doctors what type of treatment they should receive.

“Changes that usually take a decade to happen can now take place in a matter of months.”

One of the biggest issues with cancer treatments is toxicity, where a treatment can actually do more harm than good to the patient. Yang and his team have focused their research on patients given an anti-leukemic drug, and look for differences in the DNA of patients who experience toxicity versus those who do not. The hard work has already begun to pay off, with Yang and his team identifying a “genetic variation” that predicts drug toxicity in children with leukemia at an extremely high accuracy.

“Through the support of our V Foundation grant, we are developing tools for guiding leukemia therapy on the basis of these genetic variants in large clinical trial in the U.S. and internationally,” said Yang. “This grant has brought together a group of talented and dedicated scientists and clinicians from around the world to tackle this important question. We are extremely hopeful that our research will deliver significant benefits to children with leukemia with meaningful improvement in the quality of care.”

We know there is not a moment to lose and thanks to funding made possible by dedicated people like those who support the V Foundation, critical new discoveries are happening across the nation, in labs just like Dr. Yang’s. “Changes that usually take a decade to happen can now take place in a matter of months,” said Yang. “With such a fast pace in research discovery, there is an exciting window of opportunities to make big differences in the life of many cancer patients.”