Pew-Stewart Scholar Investigates Cancer Therapies at the Molecular Level

Study of metastasized cells could lead to new treatments, increased survival

Min Yu research

Pew-Stewart scholar Min Yu’s research centers on circulating tumor cells—i.e. those traveling the bloodstream to seed new growth—like the ones pictured here in a culture dish, and learning what differentiates them in order to develop new therapies.

© Min Yu

The majority of cancer deaths are caused by a metastatic form of the disease, not the primary tumor. It is currently very difficult to treat cancer that has spread because of how little is known about the basic biology of the tumor cells that are able to move from an initial site to take root in a new organ.

In order to address this gap, Min Yu, M.D., Ph.D., believes that her research must start at the molecular level.

“Basic research is crucial because it provides rationales for developing new treatments for a variety of human conditions,” says Yu.

Yu is an assistant professor in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Southern California, and a 2015 Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research. In her lab, she studies cancer metastasis, or how cancer spreads from the original site to other parts of the body.

As a postdoctoral fellow, she developed a method for isolating tumor cells in the blood that are shed from the primary tumor in patients with breast cancer and expanding them—growing them in a laboratory setting—in order to experiment on them. By combining this system with a suite of techniques in genomics and cell and molecular biology, Yu’s lab catalogs the factors that enable these cells to spread to new organs, and also identifies the molecules present in organs to support tumor growth.

“By addressing some of these basic questions, we can find the special properties of these cells, and then try to develop a therapy to target that metastasis,” Yu says. “I put a lot of emphasis on patient-derived circulating tumor cells because by learning what makes them special, we can eventually design a new therapy to target those cells.”

Like many Pew-Stewart scholars, Yu appreciates being able to connect with other program participants. “Since I received the award, I have benefited not just from the funding, but more importantly, from the community of young investigators across different fields that it supports,” Yu says. “It is very unique and special.”

She stressed how important support for early-career research can be to research efforts down the road. “Funding opportunities continue to get more competitive for young investigators, so having this initial support to generate preliminary data is key,” Yu says.

Not only is Yu thankful for the opportunity to launch her independent lab, but the Pew-Stewart program has also helped her gain research insights from her interactions with other participants, fellows, and advisors at the annual meetings. For others looking to build a foundation for future research, she has some thoughts. “Be passionate about your work, and don’t be afraid to be a little bit risky—because if you truly believe in the vision of your research, you can be successful.”

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs.

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