GSBS Student and Mentor Home In on Origins of Stomach Cancer

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By Dawn Dorsey, staff writer

Being an accomplished researcher demands painstaking adherence to detail and a firm grasp of the scientific method. But success also requires qualities more difficult to quantify -- independent thinking, integrity, and respect for science and people.

XIU_Li.jpgWhen he mentors a budding scientist, Keping Xie, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in M. D. Anderson's Departments of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology and Cancer Biology, models and nurtures these traits. As a staff research scientist in Xie's lab, Qiang Li, Ph.D., has learned his lessons well.

Li, who recently was first author on a paper in Cancer Research, received his doctorate this spring from The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS). The GSBS is a joint program of M. D. Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

A pivotal study

Li's study examined the role of transcription factor FoxM1b (mammalian forkhead box) in gastric cancer. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA and control the transfer of genetic information.

Among the findings was a strong correlation between FoxM1b and gastric cancer in humans. In mouse models, over-expression of FoxM1b significantly promoted growth and metastasis of gastric cancer cells, whereas decrease of FoxM1b expression by small interfering RNA had the opposite effect.

Although gastric cancer, also known as stomach cancer, is not common in the United States, this dangerous cancer is the second most prevalent around the world. In this country, 21,130 new cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 10,620 people will die from the disease.

"The underlying mechanism that causes gastric cancer is still unknown," Li says. "There is no effective therapy, especially for advanced disease. It's very important to identify why this cancer starts and grows and to develop drugs to treat it."

"These are very interesting findings," Xie says. "We suggest FOXM1b has a molecular connection with gastric cancer and drives it from low malignancy to high. In the future, this information may be a prognostic and diagnostic factor and provide a targeted therapy."

Personal traits are key

Xie says it's not enough for a researcher to know how to go through the motions of investigation.

"A scientist isn't just a machine that does experiments," he says. "A good scientist has to be a good person -- caring, honest, respectful, a team worker and a good leader. Integrity is the foundation."

Li, who received his master's degree from Shangai Medical University, was drawn to Xie's lab because of ample opportunity to be involved in a broad variety of translational research projects. He's worked in Xie's lab for six years and will remain for six months to finish his research and, he hopes, publish another paper.

"Dr. Xie is a role model to me," Li says. "He has given me a lot of inspiring guidance. We communicate a lot about my projects, and he is always available to answer questions or discuss ideas I have."

Independence sets him apart

Xie has been impressed with Li's work ethic, but he's even more pleased that Li shows independence and initiative.

"He's the No. 1 worker in the lab, and he knows how to design and perform research," Xie says. "But more importantly, he has good ideas and proposes projects. Independence is an essential quality. A lot of people can be researchers, but very few qualify to be principal investigators."

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