Researcher Spotlight: Catherine Wu, MD
Stanford School of Medicine
“I have always been interested in understanding the ‘why’ of how disease arises, and have always felt strongly that doing so is the most effective way of devising truly effective treatments,” Dr. Catherine Wu says. In 2012, Dr. Wu was awarded a Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia/Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma (CLL/SLL) Collaborative Grant to investigate the role RNA splicing plays in chronic lymphocytic leukemia – she and her colleagues believe their results will not only answer an important “why” for researchers seeking to understand CLL formation, but could suggest a new avenue for the development of novel therapies.
RNA splicing – the process by which sections of RNA are joined together to make the proteins that form human DNA – is a normal and crucial process in the human body. For CLL patients, however, RNA splicing often occurs incorrectly, and it is possible that the ensuing alterations in RNA contribute to CLL tumor formation. Dr. Wu and her colleagues have identified a particular gene, SF3B1 that controls the RNA splicing process. During their LRF funded project, they have been attempting to identify the specific RNAs that are spliced incorrectly in CLL patients (mRNA), and determine if a novel therapy can be designed to remove the defective mRNAs and thus slow or stop CLL progression. “Basic understanding of how RNA splicing contributes to CLL promises to deepen our knowledge of how cancer is generated and to present us with novel therapeutic targets so that more effective treatments can be designed for this currently incurable cancer,” Dr. Wu says.
The LRF CLL/SLL grant was awarded at “a critical juncture in my career, and has enabled me to deepen our expertise in CLL genomics,” Dr. Wu notes, adding that during the grant she has been promoted to Associate Professor of Medicine at her institutions, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. LRF funding has also provided “the necessary support to take on the critical next steps” in her team’s research. “Only through these studies will we be able to eventually translate our discoveries into potential therapeutic directions that are meaningful to our patients.”
Dr. Wu received her MD from Stanford School of Medicine, before completing her residency at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and her fellowship at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She has seen great advances in lymphoma treatment since her early days in the field. “When I was undergoing fellowship training, there was little available other than standard, highly toxic chemotherapy, and patients with cancer and leukemia typically had long (and nauseating) treatments…that also were highly risky in terms of side effects,” she says. “It has been amazing to see all the therapies that are now given as outpatient infusions or even as pills… The development of targeted therapies has really transformed clinical care.” She advises lymphoma patients to seek care from a center specializing in lymphoma treatment. “There may be opportunities for new clinical trial offerings that could be life saving.”