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Cancer Biology chair reappointed, reflects on growth of department

Jun-Lin Guan, PhD, Francis Brunning Endowed Chair and professor of cancer biology, as well as a leader within the Cincinnati Cancer Center and University of Cincinnati (UC) Cancer Institute, has fostered the growth and success of his department for the last five years, as he first came to UC in 2013.

Now, with a five-year reappointment, official Aug. 21 at the UC Board of Trustees meeting, he is looking to further his goals for the department and help lead the university closer to its goal of National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation.

How have you seen the department change over the last five years?

"A major change that I have seen is a renewal of the department. Although we did not change much in size, the department is now composed of early-career, energetic and enthusiastic faculty thanks to our efforts in recruitment and promotion. There are also more regular and vibrant research activities including an enhanced cancer seminar series with more outstanding external invited speakers, a new work-in-progress series for postdocs and graduate students, a biweekly brown-bag series of informal research discussion among faculty, annual department retreats including those jointly with the Division of Hematology and Oncology, our successful Jensen symposium in 2016 and more. I also see a new sense of confidence and optimism building up over the past few years. Although there are still many challenges ahead, we are now more optimistic that our department is on a growth trajectory and will reach greater heights in years to come as we continue the positive momentum built over the last five years.”

What are some of your department’s biggest successes?

"I believe one of the biggest successes is the revitalization and improvement of the intellectual and research environment of the department. We achieved this through numerous new initiatives and activities, purchase and upgrade of equipment in response to faculty needs and providing bridge and short-term stimulus funding to help faculty research programs and success in seeking external research grants. All of these are essential and beneficial to existing faculty and new recruits. A second and very important success is our recruitment of outstanding young and rising star faculty to the department. The addition of the new faculty into the department has helped to stimulate our overall research and education missions as well as significantly increase research funding. 

"Our three new tenure track assistant professors have each successfully established their new labs, published papers and obtained external funding. Of course, they did not achieve this in vacuum, and I thank those in the department and across the College of Medicine who provided mentoring and support in various ways to our young faculty. On the education front, we have re-designed our major graduate course on Cancer Biology and Therapeutics and initiated work to develop an undergraduate level course that can feed into our graduate program. We also obtained an outstanding rating for our Cancer and Cell Biology Graduate Program in a recent review by UC and successfully renewed NCI T32 training grant for the next five years. Lastly, we have built stronger collaborations with many other units across UC and Cincinnati Children’s, particularly with the Division of Hematology and Oncology at UC and the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute at Cincinnati Children’s. Our faculty plays many roles in the Cincinnati Cancer Center and UC Cancer Institute and makes significant contributions towards our goals for the NCI designation effort.”

My role in the next five years will be to facilitate and help our outstanding faculty and new recruits achieve their aspirations for being the best in their area of mechanistic cancer research and translating lab research results to new clinical therapies through collaborations with others.

As a researcher yourself, spending time in the lab, what are some of your biggest successes?

"It was certainly a challenge to spend enough time running an active research lab while serving as a department chair. However, I strongly believe the importance of lead by example, which helps me make the right decisions and be more effective in leading the department forward. Spending time in the lab and discussing research with postdocs, students and collaborators also provides me with a calming balance from some of the frustrations that often come with administrative work. We’ve made significant progress in work related to breast cancer stem cells and their roles in metastasis and relapse, which are the least understood aspects of cancer mechanisms but yet responsible for the majority of mortality at least for breast cancer patients. 

"We also created the first mouse model for a rare cancer called lymphangiosarcoma that was published in Cancer Cell, a highly prestigious journal in the field. Lastly, we made a number of new discoveries that link a basic cellular process called autophagy, which is basically when a cell eats its own components, to other cellular metabolic pathways and immune cell responses in neural stem cells during normal brain development as well as a rare genetic diseases with symptoms in brain tumor formation. In all of this work, we collaborated with other researchers, in some cases clinicians at UC, Cincinnati Children’s and elsewhere. I feel that the establishment of these new collaborations are big successes to propel our research to a higher level.” 

What do you think is the next big breakthrough coming in cancer biology research? What is on the horizon?

"We are at a most exciting time for cancer research or indeed for all of biomedical research now, which is certainly how I feel over my research career of more than 35 years. Immunotherapy, big data and personalized medicine are all exciting frontiers that move fast with new advances rapidly. I also foresee many big breakthroughs coming in cancer and other biomedical research, including understanding the basic mechanisms of drug resistance, relapse and metastasis. New combination treatments for combating drug resistance are a very active area of research now. With deeper understanding of metastatic mechanisms including tumor evolution and heterogeneity, perhaps we will see the development of effective treatments for metastatic diseases that are responsible for the majority of cancer mortality now.” 

What are your goals for the next five years?

"Building upon a stronger foundation and positive growth trajectory, I am very optimistic about the continued success of the department at the forefront of cancer research and education. I am committed to growing our research enterprise, promoting research collaboration within and outside the department, enhancing our teaching programs, building financial strength and effective administrative support, and providing a collegial and innovative environment. We will recruit additional top talents and provide them with the best environment and mentoring to be successful at UC. My role in the next five years will be to facilitate and help our outstanding faculty and new recruits achieve their aspirations for being the best in their area of mechanistic cancer research and translating lab research results to new clinical therapies through collaborations with others.” 

How is your research and the research going on within the department furthering the university’s goal for NCI designation? 

"Research in the department, including my own, will continue to be a cornerstone of discovery research to contribute to the overall effort of achieving NCI cancer center designation for the university. The cutting-edge research by faculty continues to attract external funding from NCI and other federal and non-federal agencies for cancer-related projects. Faculty in the department also serve important roles in developing and optimizing the research programs which, along with the total cancer-related grant awards, are crucial factors for a potential NCI cancer center designation. Our ongoing recruitment efforts aim to significantly increase the total funding base as well as fill crucial gaps in developing research programs and emerging areas of cancer biology research.

"The basic discovery research in the department also serves as an important role for translational cancer research emphasized as NCI cancer center designation criteria. Several of our faculty have active collaborations with clinical colleagues for translational research in different cancers within the UC Cancer Institute. Likewise, our recruitments target outstanding talents that can help to promote further such collaborations. Lastly, the cancer and cell biology graduate program, based in the department, as well as the recently renewed NCI T32 training grant for both pre-doctoral and post-doctoral trainees, helps  promote the educational component of NCI designation, and faculty in the department also play a leading role in the development and management of the college’s research cores—an integral part of the cancer center designation application.”

Coming from Michigan to Ohio, what are some of your favorite things about Cincinnati?

"One obvious advantage to me is Cincinnati's warmer climate compared to Michigan. Born and raised in a city in China with warm climate, I always feel more comfortable in a warmer place. I also like Cincinnati for its many diverse neighborhoods and interesting characteristics blending the Midwest and the South but also having some flavors of an East Coast ‘old’ city style and a bit of San Francisco for its hilly streets. Prior to my moving to Cincinnati a few years ago, I spent my entire professional (starting from a tenure track assistant professor) and family life (raising our three kids) in a college town, first in Ithaca, New York, and then in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for more than 20 years. While we enjoyed the familiarity and convenience of small college towns, we’ve come to appreciate more and more the abundant activities in Cincinnati, including professional sports, museums, parks and other entertainment activities. There are also many different festivals in Cincinnati and surrounding towns and the festival atmosphere of Findlay Market on weekends all year long.”