“As I interviewed for faculty positions, I was often asked about how I will differentiate myself from my postdoc mentors and succeed in leading my own lab. I found that my SPARK project came up as a perfect example of how I could lead independent research.”
Novel DNA blood test for early cancer diagnosis
FUNDED: JANUARY 2019
FUNDED BY: The generosity of LJI Board Director Mark Bowles and Katie Bowles, Kathleen and Ira Robb, and various 2018 SPARK donors.
What was the goal of your SPARK project?
Doctors, patients and researchers desperately need ways to detect cancer earlier in the disease progression. One way to detect cancer may be to look for changes in neutrophils, the most abundant blood cell type. The goal of this project was to study if neutrophils and the cells they come from exhibit any special markers throughout cancer progression. To do so, we aimed to identify the molecular signatures of neutrophils in the blood of cancer patients. We hypothesized that neutrophils would change their molecular features after interacting with cancer cells, giving us a clue that the cancer was growing.
SPARK project results:
We compared protein and gene expression as well as DNA activity changes in neutrophils from healthy individuals and from patients with melanoma. Our preliminary data is promising and gives us insights into the next steps for figuring out why neutrophils are more abundant in the blood of cancer patients—and why they tend to suppress the immune system. The data plays an important part in our recent findings, published in the journal Immunity in August 2020, which brought us closer to determining important and cancer-related gene signatures and biological pathways in cancer patients. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this extent of data generation and analysis were done in the context of cancer and neutrophils in humans. I also believe that knowing how human neutrophils develop is especially relevant today because immature neutrophil levels are higher in both the blood and lungs of severe COVID-19 patients.
What’s next for this project?
My next goal is to analyze these data for insights into the mechanism(s) that may control neutrophil levels and their role in promoting tumor growth. Understanding the underlying mechanism will help us design further experiments to identify if neutrophils can be new cancer drug targets or predictors of how patients will respond to cancer immunotherapy. I will also harness new technologies and insights from my neutrophil data to study whether neutrophils in cancer originate in the bone marrow—and how these cells may change when they interact with tumor cells. This will be a focus of mine in my newly established independent research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My start up package will fund these immediate next steps, and I plan to apply for a National Cancer Institute grant to secure more funding for this work in spring 2021.
What’s next for Huy?
As mentioned above, in August 2020 I took a faculty position at UW-Madison where I hope to further study the roles of neutrophils as a blood biomarker for early detection of cancer. In addition, I am curious to look at the difference and similarity of neutrophils between cancer patients and COVID-19 patients to see how we can apply what we learned in cancer immunology to study this emerging disease. Currently, I am recruiting graduate students and postdocs to pursue these lines of research with me in Madison.