Hui Shen, PhD, spoke of a particular moment that helped cement her commitment to ovarian cancer research. She was working on a complicated project that required a new genomics technology to work. So she and her team enlisted help from an expert.
“This technologist made it all happen,” Hui explained. “We were jumping up and down with the data and I thanked her. It would not have been possible without her.”
While Hui felt completely indebted to this technologist for her contribution, the woman in turn thanked Hui for the opportunity to help ovarian cancer research. Ovarian cancer runs in the technologist’s family.
“It’s moments like that,” Hui said, “that provide sparks.”
Hui is an associate professor in Van Andel Institute’s Center for Epigenetics in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She grew up in China, and in high school was leaning toward chemistry. But her school encouraged her to participate in a national biology contest. She ended up winning first prize in the country and continued on this path.
Hui did her undergraduate studies in China, and then went to the University of Southern California for her PhD studying epigenetics. While at USC, she got involved with a national project run by the NCI (National Cancer Institute) called the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). Ovarian cancer was one of the pilot projects, led by Dr. Doug Levine, a member of OCRA’s Scientific Advisory Committee. She recalled her first face-to-face meeting with all the collaborators where everyone shared their own discoveries with the ovarian cancer datasets. At the end of the long day with intense discussions, everyone was walking to dinner.
“Dr. Levine came running up and was talking to my advisor all the way to dinner, asking about the clinical implication of a molecular event that we studied,” Hui recalled. “He asked in such a pressing manner that I felt there were so many unmet needs. His passion was inspiring to me as well.”
Hui remains fascinated by the number of unknowns that still exist in ovarian cancer research. These “interesting, unanswered questions,” especially surrounding the molecular mechanism, fuel her motivation. So do the other scientists.
“The ovarian cancer research community is so small and it’s full of really, really good people,” Hui said. “They truly care about the scientific research.”
When Hui moved from southern California to the Midwest, she fell in love with her colleagues’ shared drive; the way they respected their jobs, the way that everyone from the scientists to the administrative staff all work together and feel a sense of common purpose. “The level of synergy is quite different.”
And as Hui advances in her work, she’s meeting more and more patients. Seeing how they are impacted by the disease only increases her desire to help them.
“The patients are my heroes,” Hui said, reflecting on what it’s like to face a diagnosis that doesn’t always have a good prognosis. “Many of them, in a difficult position like that, give back by participating and consenting to be a part of ovarian cancer research.”
A little biology for the laymen and women: our bodies have genes whose jobs are to keep our cells from becoming cancerous tumors. Sometimes these genes become mutated, such as the BRCA mutation, which means that the genetic sequence changes in such a way that these ‘tumor suppressor genes’ can no longer do their job.
Epigenetics is another mechanism by which a suppressor gene doesn’t work. Rather than a mutation of the strand of molecules in the gene sequence itself, epigenetics acts on top of the gene, turning off its ability to protect our cells from turning into cancer tumors. Epigenetics in and of itself isn’t a bad thing: turning on and off a gene’s function is what makes some of our cells grow into a brain, while other cells with the same DNA strands turn into hair, for example. But it’s a problem when it turns off a gene’s ability to fight off a tumor cell.
As science has developed a way to look at all of our genes at the same time (called a genome), it can also look at all of our epigenetics together as well. This is an epigenome, and the epigenome in ovarian cancer is the primary focus of Hui’s work.
“My lab is not a traditional lab,” Hui said. “We have a lot of ‘dry space’ as opposed to ‘wet labs,’ and we develop computational tools to analyze the data that comes out of the wet labs.”
She’s also exploring, with a collaborator, how cells metastasize – what happens in that process and what promotes that process. Because, as Hui explained, “Ovarian cancer doesn’t kill people. It’s the metastasis that eventually kills the patient.”
Hui would like people, especially women, to cut themselves some slack. She recognizes the physical toll the stress of balancing work and life can take on our bodies.
“Our mental and physical health should be our top priority,” she said. “Because as women, we tend to put other people – our family, our kids – ahead of us.”
She knows this advice may go against our maternal instincts, and flies in the face of many of our current realities. But she also believes that even mental stress can suppress our immune system. Something that this mother of two toddlers, who is balancing caring for children while working to cure cancer, is keenly attuned to.