A Tragic Diagnosis Drives a Career

In 2004, when Dr. Zhe Ji was a sophomore in college, his mother was unexpectedly diagnosed with bone cancer.  At the time, he was majoring in biotechnology.  He knew cancers undergo uncontrolled cell proliferation but almost nothing else.  His father located the best doctors in the field in China.  However, therapeutic strategies that could help treat his mother did not yet exist.  Sadly, the cancer moved quickly and she passed away about 8 months later.

“I felt frustrated as a student who majored in biology, but couldn’t help much. This family tragedy made me determined to be a cancer researcher,” Dr. Ji explains.

Once he decided to become a scientist, he set his mind to study in the US.  He felt the US had the most advanced graduate programs in science education.  Dr. Ji entered Rutgers University to study computational genomics and the regulation of RNA processing. He realized success early on and published several impactful papers in the field.

 “I felt strongly that I could pursue an academic research career and make an impact,” Dr. Ji recalls.

Focusing on Breast Cancer

For his postdoctoral studies, he applied to various cancer research laboratories.  Ultimately, he picked a joint position in the laboratories of Drs. Kevin Struhl at Harvard Medical School and Aviv Regev at the Broad Institute of MIT.

   “I was lucky to gain complimentary expertise in computational biology, molecular biology, and cancer biology,” he remembers.

Although Dr. Ji’s work today is primarily computational, he used his training in molecular biology to establish a hybrid lab in computational and experimental biology.

“This setting allows us to approach biological questions in a unique and innovative way.”

It was in Dr. Struhl’s lab, studying gene regulation in breast oncogenic transformations, where Dr. Ji decided to study breast cancer.  With breast cancers there are more established cancer models and greater existing knowledge compared to other cancers.  Leveraging data from thousands of cancer cell lines and patient samples is key for the success of Dr. Ji’s computational analyses.  Eventually, he believes his research will have a wider application.

“I think our research outcomes will not be restricted to breast cancers,” notes Dr. Ji.  “We will also identify how the molecular mechanisms learned from our breast cancer models are involved in other cancer types.”

The Path to Lynn Sage Scholar

Then with his training complete, Dr. Ji joined Northwestern University in 2018, as an Assistant Professor in Pharmacology and Biomedical Engineering.  However, establishing a bioinformatics laboratory wasn’t easy to achieve.  Most conventional cancer funding mechanisms prefer hypothesis-driven research, which focuses on one or two pathways.   It is more challenging to secure funding for his data-driven, forward-looking approach.  It is even harder when you are unproven, in the early stage of your career.

  “The Lynn Sage Scholar award provides us with a very valuable resource to carry out a bold genomics project, characterizing the metastatic landscape of breast cancers,” he commented.  In the first year of this project, his team generated large-scale genomic sequencing datasets. This unbiased data lays the foundation for his functional studies. By analyzing the data, his lab generated several specific hypotheses, which the team will focus on this year.  These results also provide the basis to apply for larger, more meaningful grants.

Measuring success for his research is layered.  While he always strives to make impactful scientific findings and develop novel solutions for cancer, his first priority is to ensure a sustainable research program.   Unfortunately, without funding, scientific research can not progress.  Dr. Ji also hopes to provide valuable training to his research assistants, so they can develop scientific discoveries of their own.

“I believe basic science research is the only hope to resolve many human diseases.  In recent years, there have been many breakthroughs in cancer research and therapies. All trace back to advances first made in basic scientific research,” he notes.

It is this belief and his mother’s memory that drive Dr. Ji each day.  “My mother’s experience with cancer always motivates me to work hard on my research.”