By Ashley Festa
December 5, 2017
When Rong Li, Ph.D., transferred his laboratory to UT Health San Antonio, he finally felt he was making real progress in breast cancer research.
“I was trained as a molecular biologist, and I studied the fundamental cellular processes in a lab setting,” says Li, a professor of molecular medicine who left his faculty position at the University of Virginia in 2007. “But I felt unsatisfied because I wanted to connect my lab findings more closely to human health.”
At UT Health, he found the opportunity to collaborate with physician scientists, both at the international level and closer to home. UT Health breast oncologists Ismail Jatoi, M.D., and Richard Elledge, M.D., as well as plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Howard Wang, M.D., have offered cross-disciplinary support, and some of their patients donate breast tissue samples for Li’s research.
Over the past 11 years at UT Health, Li has made several advances toward improved treatment options and prevention tools for breast cancer through his research of the gene BRCA1. Scientists now know that women who have a BRCA1 mutation have a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer than women who have a functional gene. What’s interesting, Li says, is that the mutated BRCA1 gene is within every cell in the body, but the risk of cancer increases only in the breasts and ovaries, and only in women—men with a mutated BRCA1 gene do not have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Therefore, the connection between BRCA1 and cancer appears to be tissue- and gender-specific. But why?
“We don’t have a good answer for that,” says Li, who adds that he believes it’s necessary to challenge the current way of thinking about what causes cancer in order to make new discoveries.
Supported by more than $20 million in grants funded from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation, and other organizations during his career at UT Health, Li and his colleagues have published several papers detailing the breakthroughs he’s had in tackling breast cancer. For example, in a recent paper in Nature Communications, Li published his findings about a connection between BRCA1 and transcriptional elongation control during normal breast tissue development and tumor suppression.
“What makes our approach unique is that we deviate from the current paradigm of how BRCA1 suppresses tumors,” says Li, the holder of the Tom C. and Patricia H. Frost Endowment to Advance Cancer Research and Education. “While that’s important, we think there are additional mechanisms that explain why the BRCA1 mutation can lead to tissue-specific cancer. If we can understand that, it will be informative for developing more effective cancer prevention approaches.”
Li has filed for a patent for some of his other breast cancer-related research, and he’s eager to have more opportunities to bring lab studies to a medical setting through clinical trials. He’s already conducting a trial to treat triple-negative breast cancer with physicians at the Mays Cancer Center, where he is a co-leader of the Cancer Development and Progression Program. Li foresees other clinical trials beginning in the next five to ten years.
While he enjoys looking into the future of medicine, Li relishes thinking back to where he started—stepping foot in the United States with two suitcases and $200 in his pocket.
He left his native Shanghai, China, in 1986 to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, Berkeley. Perhaps even more exciting, Li happened to be flying on the same plane as his future wife. Yanfen Hu, Ph.D., also a molecular biologist and breast cancer researcher at UT Health, was traveling to Cornell University to begin her Ph.D. Only nine months later, she transferred to UC Berkeley, and the rest is history. Despite working together and co-authoring many research papers, the two have found work-life balance over their 30 years of marriage.
“In the early days with two young kids and many things to juggle, we had a tendency to bring work to the dinner table,” Li says. “But we figured out how to separate science from family life.”
Besides collaborating with his wife and clinician scientists at UT Health, Li also enjoys working with the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, a joint venture between UT Health San Antonio and UTSA, on building small molecule compound libraries with the hope of finding novel drugs or compounds that can inhibit tumor growth. Such partnerships reflect the thriving, $37 billion healthcare and bioscience industry in the Alamo City.
“Our (National Cancer Institute-designated) Cancer Center is a world-renowned center of excellence in terms of research and breast cancer care,” Li says. “In order for us to take the next giant step in BRCA1 studies, we need to reach out to clinician scientists. And of all the institutions and universities I’ve been to in the past 30 years, UT Health San Antonio is the place that allowed me to nurture multidisciplinary research.”