Driven to find a cure

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 5, 2012

Fatty acids linked to cancer growth

This story originally appeared in Progress 2012, which published Sunday, Feb. 26.

At nearly 6:30 a.m., Dr. Bing Li is on his way from home to work at The Hormel Institute.

Most work days, like this, can be 12 hours long, but he and other scientists there are quick to point out that, really, work at a world-renowned cancer research facility is never-ending. Most days he’ll get up, go to work at 6:30 a.m., catch up on new papers published by others in his field, direct research in the lab, observe those findings and try to generate new ideas based on what they learn. He’ll leave for dinner at 5:30 p.m., come back for a couple more hours of research, and finally retire for the evening around 9 p.m.

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It’s grueling, but rewarding. He and everyone there are driven to hopefully contribute to the daunting task of someday eradicating cancer.

“People say for scientists, the job is 24/7,” Li said. “Even when you go back home, even when you go to sleep, sometimes you’re still thinking about your project.”

Li admits most people in Austin don’t understand what exactly it is he and his colleagues do at The Institute. But then again, neither do most people without an advanced degree in molecular biology.

If you have several hours, Li could tell you all about it. But simply put, he’s researching the relationship between obesity and the rate of cancer cell growth. And he hopes he’s on to something.

Obesity and cancer

Before Li came to The Institute, he was working at the University of Louisville, where he met his wife, Yanwen Sun, also a molecular biologist. They’ve been married nine years and have two sons. In September 2011, Li was recruited by Dr. Zigang Dong, The Institute’s executive director, to lead a team focused on cancer and inflammatory disease regulation.

Li, who has more than 20 published works, now heads that research, working with his wife and one other scientist. He is one of 13 section leaders, many recruited by Dong, all working in different areas toward one goal.

Much of Li’s research — made possible by a three-year, $500,000 grant from The Hormel Foundation and other private donors — studies how the presence of fatty acid binding proteins and macrophages — defense cells in the blood that kill things like bacteria — facilitate the growth of cancer cells, and how this facilitation can be blocked or slowed.

Li’s team studies the process in mice. They inject mice with cancer cells and observe the tumors’ growth. While different cancers grow differently, Li said they found that obese mice — the ones with high levels of fatty acid binding proteins and more macrophages — experienced tumor growth at an accelerated level, and the cancer metastasized, or spread to other areas, quicker.

“When people get obese, their whole body is in an inflammatory status, which can promote the tumor to grow,” Li said.

That’s why Li’s team is searching for a small molecule, or inhibitor, that can block the function of the fatty acid binding protein. Then, eventually they may be able to use it to develop a drug to treat cancer patients, he says.

“If it works in the mouse model, we definitely want to put it in the clinical trials,” he said. “And if it that works, then that’s potentially a drug.”

Different tasks, same goal

Dr. Young-In Chi and Dr. Shujun Liu are in the same boat as Li, and they were all recruited by Dong in September 2011 to be section leaders.

Chi, an associate professor of structural biology, and Liu, an associate professor of cancer genetics and experimental therapeutics, are working under Dong’s guidance on different parts of a puzzle that they hope eventually will develop a cure for cancer and other diseases.

“Under Dong’s leadership, we have a really outstanding team,” Liu said.

Liu and the three other scientists in his section are researching how cancer initiates, grows and spreads, and hopes to use that information to develop cancer treatments with fewer side effects.

“My dream is to find the reason for cancer, and develop some medicine to cure this kind of disease,” he said. “My hope is someday our society will be a cancer-free society.”

Chi, one of two scientists in his section, is researching proteins using X-ray crystallography to understand their interactions with diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

“Once we know how they function, we can design a way to destruct a particular function or enhance their functions,” Chi said. “And we use that for therapeutic uses. That’s our ultimate goal.”

While the section leaders are three of 13 department heads at The Institute, they’re hoping that will soon change.

The Institute, founded in 1942, tripled its size with an expansion in 2008 and since has gone from 60 employees to 130. Now, it’s at full capacity and ready to expand again. So Institute officials are planning a $27-million expansion which would double its size and create 125 more jobs. That’s something Li, Chi and Liu agree would continue to elevate The Institute’s status in the scientific community.


Li is an optimist, but he’s also a realist.

It’s hard for him to contain his excitement when talking about potential breakthroughs in cancer research. But he also understands most scientists go a lifetime without any significant discoveries.

“Sometimes, even if you try really hard, you still cannot find the answer,” he said. “I think for most scientists, they try really hard, but in their whole life, they cannot find a drug. If I can translate (my research) into a drug, that’s huge. … That’s a dream come true.”

To Li’s knowledge, when he began studying at the University of Louisville four years ago the link between fatty acid binding proteins and cancer development, he was the first in the world to do so. As he continues that work at The Institute, his team is screening thousands of potential inhibitors. Li said they have discovered one that — while it doesn’t slow a tumor’s growth — may prevent lung cancer from spreading. His finding isn’t published yet, but he’s hoping it will be soon.


At roughly 9 p.m., Li’s work will be almost done for the day. Soon, he’ll drive home and go to bed, but his mind will wander back to his work at The Institute.

“It’s like a never-ending project,” he said. “You can never stop thinking about it.”