Issue No. 4
Focusing on Translational Medicine
Date: April 18, 2012
At the beginning of his medical school studies, Dr. Tran didn’t think of himself as much of a people person, but more of a laboratory scientist. But, after his residency training, which brought him in contact with patients every day, he discovered how much he enjoyed interacting with patients.
He credits three mentors who inspired him in his dual interest in the laboratory and patient care. As an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, Tran worked in the laboratory of Dennis Carson, M.D., the director of the Moores Cancer Center and a rheumatologist, who developed a cure to target hairy cell leukemia.
He decided to emulate Dr. Carson’s approach: identify a clinical problem, solve it in the lab, and bring back successful results to patients From there, Tran went on to earn his
medical degree and doctorate at the Oregon Health & Science University, where he was
mentored by Brian Druker, M.D., the director of the Knight Cancer Institute and a hematologist who developed Gleevec, the first targeted therapy for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
“I saw firsthand how important the collaborative process is to developing successful research and treatment strategies,” Tran says. He points out how knowledge flows in both directions: “What we find out in patients informs what to study next in the lab. If we see certain characteristics in patients and their samples in these studies, we are given new directions.”
After his doctoral studies, Tran completed the medical part of his training as a resident
at Stanford University. Working in the laboratory of medical oncologist Dean Felsher,
M.D., Ph.D., he studied how oncogenes, the genes capable of turning normal cells cancerous, initiate and sustain tumorigenesis,or the production of tumors.
From Mouse Models to Clinical Trials
For Tran, “radiation oncology is the logical extension of my early interest in cancer research. I am drawn to the sophisticated technology on the physics side, and the multidisciplinary nature of the work on the patient care side.”
Following in the footsteps of these three role models, Tran, who has been a Johns Hopkins faculty member since 2009, works both in the lab and with patients who come to Johns Hopkins for their cancer care.
Tran focuses on prostate cancer and lung cancer. A particular research interest involves
statins, which have been effective for decades in lowering cholesterol. Epidemiological data show that men taking statins seem to have a lower risk for prostate cancer. Data collected in the last few years indicate that prostate cancer patients who have surgery or radiation have more success if taking statins at the same time.
In collaboration with Johns Hopkins colleagues Angelo De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D., and
Ted Schaefer, M.D., Ph.D., Dr. Tran is following up on research to see how high-dose statins regulate the MYC oncoprotein in humans.
Tran explains, “This is the era of whole genome sequencing, where we are beginning to understand the key characteristics of an individual’s cancer. We can narrow down what makes a tumor a tumor and what makes it stay alive. If we can find the right targets and the right molecules, we can potentially fight any cancer.”
For instance, research in genetic systems has shown that one protein-targeting pill can
erase CML and, in some cases, the patient is cured. Unfortunately, physician scientists may need more than one target to achieve the same result in other types of cancer. Prostate cancer, for example, is not just one disease, but a limited collection of several genetically distinct diseases. In the eyes of Tran, each variation is a potential target. As part of his research, he is studying the role of MYC as a target.
Soon, Tran will begin a study with Johns Hopkins Colleague, Michael Carducci, M.D.,
to examine the role of statins and how molecular mechanisms regulate prostate cancer. He is also planning research with Christine Chung, M.D., and Charles Rudin, M.D.,
Ph.D., to explore the EMT oncogene Twist1 and its role in lung cancer.
If he identifies promising new agents, Tran will test them on mouse models first. He describes this stage of the investigation as being only half the journey. The circle will be completed if the investigations result in human clinical trials and the drugs then become standard treatment for patients with cancer.