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GSBS Student Builds Expertise on Key Tumor-Suppressing Protein

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Jer-Yen Yang's publications include a lead-authorship in Nature Cell Biology

Jer-Yen Yang graduated Saturday from The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS), departing with hard-earned expertise about a crucial cancer-suppressing protein, an impressive publication record and a blueprint for success as a scientist. And his doctorate, of course.

"I've learned a lot here from Dr. Hung about how to do science, how to stay focused and to not waste time," Yang says. "I want to cure cancer patients. This is my goal, and I'm trying to achieve it step by step."

hung-yang profile.jpg"Dr. Hung" is Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D., professor and chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology, and one of the world's leading experts on the molecular disruptions that fuel cancer.  Hung also is a multi-year winner of the graduate school's annual teaching award.  The GSBS is a joint graduate program of M. D. Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. 

Hung hired Yang as a staff research scientist and quickly noted one of the many things that he has come to admire about the young researcher. "This guy is highly committed," Hung says. "He didn't view it as just an 8-to-5 job."  In 2004, Yang's work earned him co-authorship on a paper published in the journal Cell. Hung's group demonstrated that the oncoprotein IKKbeta promotes cancer growth by inhibiting the tumor-suppressing transcription factor FOXO3a.

The scientists suspected other proteins might block FOXO3a from its regulatory role in the cell nucleus. Yang, by now a GSBS student, set up a project to examine that proposition. In early 2008, Yang was first author of a paper in Nature Cell Biology showing how two known cancer-causing proteins gang up to destroy FOXO3a.  

First, the protein kinase ERK attaches phosphate groups to FOXO3a, which forces the tumor-suppressor out of the cell nucleus. Out in the cytoplasm, the phosphorylated FOXO3a is marked for death by the oncoprotein MDM2. By attaching a string of targeting proteins called ubiquitins, MDM2 subjects FOXO3a to destruction by the ubiquitin-proteasome degradation pathway.

"So this important tumor-suppressor is targeted by three oncoproteins. If we can knock out those three, we can fully restore FOXO3a to inhibit tumor growth," Yang says.

In Hung's lab, Yang is the FOXO man. "He probably knows the literature better than I," Hung says. The two co-authored a review of the tumor suppressor that was published in February 2009 by Clinical Cancer Research.

Yang moved to the United States from Taiwan, where he earned a master's degree from the prestigious Academica Sinica. Hung efficiently sums up his student's strong points: "He works hard. He's smart, reads a lot, thinks and comes up with an idea. Then he sits down and gets it done. When you teach him something, he listens, digests and he improves."

Yang says lessons learned go well beyond the lab. Hung is great at sharing information, he says, whether it's the latest from a scientific meeting or important internal updates about M. D. Anderson that keep his team in the loop. Yang has had opportunities to explore grant applications and the review process, getting a feel for the lifeblood of scientific funding, and to hone both his presentation and writing skills.  

Hung taps an extensive collaborative network to help his researchers. "If you need a reagent or tumor samples, he'll know someone who can help and we can get it, sometimes within days," Yang says.

Such collaborations lead to a critically important lesson: Share. "Teamwork is so important," Yang says, "you can't do anything by yourself. Opening your mind to share information with others helps you gain their respect, and it helps everyone do better research." Yang's sharing earned him 11 co-authorships, along with the six papers on which he was lead author.

"Learning how to be part of a team is a critical factor in becoming a scientist and a leader," Hung says. "I expect Jer-Yen to do even better as a postdoctoral fellow, and to make significant contributions to science in the future."

If Yang has one bit of advice for new students, it's to focus. "Some students are smart, they work hard, but they try to do too many things," Yang says. "Initiate one project at a time and you'll be successful."

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