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Hien Dang
31 JULY 2019

Hien Dang Awarded ALF Research Award for Important Work on Liver Cancer Therapies

Charles Trey, MD Memorial Liver Scholar Award

Hien Dang, PhD
Thomas Jefferson University
Philadelphia, PA

Genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 screening for synthetic lethal targets in NELFE/MYC HCC
Mentor: Jonathan Brody, PhD


What is your first memory/experience of wanting to be involved in scientific research?

My first science experience was my junior year in high school. I was 16 and was among two students selected for a summer internship with the Van Andel Institute in Michigan with Dr. James Resau. I remember looking under the microscope and saw the complex architecture of the colon tumors. They looked so disorganized but at the same time I wondered if all those random things had a purpose. It wasn’t until the end of the summer internship that I realized the architecture is unique a not random. Ever since then, I had the idea that every small detail must have a purpose and a function.

How did you learn that you had won an ALF Research Award?

I was at the gym and got an email early in the morning. I had to stop what I was doing and read it a few times to REALLY make sure that it wasn’t spam. I even googled Savonne’s name to make sure she exists! This is my FIRST research award as an independent thinker, so I wanted to make sure this was real and it was! I was so excited, I told everyone who would listen to me!

Describe your Research Award Project in very simple (layman) language?

Liver cancer is on the rise in the US and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the primary form of liver cancer. Currently, there are no effective therapies for patients with this cancer type. In addition, because liver cancer is a result of many factors, including hepatitis infection, liver fluke, alcoholism, and obesity, it is difficult to develop effective therapies. A one size fits all therapy doesn’t work. Our previous works have identified a unique mechanism that affects more than 38% of HCC called NELFE/MYC. This proposal focuses on developing a biomarker to identify liver cancer patients whose tumors are driven by NELFE/MYC but have different backgrounds (i.e. hepatitis infection or obesity, etc.). Using genome editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, we will screen for targets that can help kill these tumors.

What do you hope your research project will lead to?

  • In the short term?
    In the short term, we hope to develop a prognostic platform that can help predict whether a patient has the NELFE/MYC tumor biology. In addition, we will identify distinct targets in which NELFE/MYC tumor is dependent using the genome-wide screen.
  • In its overall contribution to a specific area of liver research?
    The ultimate goal is to have a biomarker that can identify whether a patient has a NELFE/MYC tumor and provide them with the therapies specific for that tumor type. These works will improve our understanding of liver cancer biology and precision medicine by providing patients with directed care based on their tumor biology, which would improve their chances of overall survival.

How did you first hear about the ALF Research Award Program?

I actually googled “liver research award programs young investigators”.

What is the one thing you would like readers to know about why liver research is so important?

In the US, liver cancer is not prevalent, but it is on the rise. In the past 30-40 years, while other cancer rates are decreasing due to better therapies and awareness, liver cancer has been increasing. Yet, it is also one of the most preventable cancers . While certain groups are more susceptible than others, the complex etiology associated with liver cancer makes it such a difficult tumor to treat. I hope that in the next few decades, with the ALF’s help, we can improve liver disease awareness. Moreover, my hope is to improve our understanding of how certain etiologies can lead to this deadly disease and develop therapies that extends a patients life longer than the 2.5 months that the only FDA approved drug, sorafenib, provides for patients.

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