Since its launch on October 1, 2018, the Dang Laboratory has been dedicated to the study of novel approaches to diagnosing and treating hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer. The lab, which is part of the Division of Surgical Research, recently secured two grants and is led by Hien Dang, PhD, with support from Postdoctoral Fellow Kai Zhang, PhD, and Lab Technician Anna Barry, MS.
Before joining the faculty at Jefferson, Dr. Dang worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow supported by a Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. While there, she worked in the Laboratory of Human Carcinogenesis in the Center for Cancer Research. At Jefferson, she and her team collaborate with Jefferson surgeons Ashesh P. Shah, MD, Adam S. Bodzin, MD, and Warren Maley, MD, as well as James A. Posey, MD, of Medical Oncology. These collaborations are key to enabling the research, as well as applying the findings to clinical decision making.
“Most of the work we do has clinical implications,” Dr. Dang says. “In other words, does it make sense to triage liver cancer patients into specific subtypes? Does it make sense to include biomarkers for picking out subtypes and unique subgroups? When a patient isn’t eligible for a liver transplant, how can we best treat them?”
The Dang Laboratory’s two most recent grants are from the American Liver Foundation and the American Cancer Society. The first is supporting work to identify specific lethal targets based on the biology of a patient’s tumor.
“The grant covers development of a platform to use in the clinic to subtype the patient – that is, to take a piece of tissue and say, ‘Here’s the genomics. Based on that, the patient belongs to this subtype, and, therefore, this drug will work best,’” Dr. Dang says.
The second grant is enabling the lab to delve into something even more novel: proteins that form aggregates. Sometimes RNA-binding proteins come together to form aggregates rather than remaining independent and fulfilling their own function. Such protein aggregates play a key role in diseases, such as Parkinson’s, and Dr. Dang and her team’s hypothesis is that these aggregates could play a big part in fueling liver cancer.
“This study is a big deal – something no one else has tackled before,” she notes.
In addition to the American Cancer Society-funded research, the lab has been studying another aspect of protein aggregates. Dr. Dang explains that the current paradigm is that micro-RNAs regulate RNAs and, therefore, micro-RNAs can be pivotal in targeting cancer cells. Her team has found evidence to the contrary – that micro-RNAs may not actually kill cancer cells. Preliminary findings suggest that RNA-binding proteins can independently regulate RNA transcription. In other words, at best using micro-RNAs to treat cancer could be ineffective; at worst, it could be fueling cancer cells. For yet another project, they are exploring whether protein aggregates are found in actual patient tissues versus cell models – and whether those aggregates can be used to predict therapy response and/or survival.
The continued work of the Dang Laboratory is helping to inform treatment for all liver cancer patients – whether treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some combination.
“Understanding the genomics, or biology, of a tumor is invaluable in helping determine the right course of treatment,” she concludes.
For more information about the Dang Laboratory, please visit: Jefferson.edu/DangLab
"Dang Laboratory Explores Novel Approaches to Diagnosing, Treating Liver Cancer,"
Jefferson Surgical Solutions: Vol. 14:
2, Article 6.
Available at: https://jdc.jefferson.edu/jss/vol14/iss2/6