Dr. Qing Chen leads her team down the most challenging path in cancer research
Updated: Mar 16
Not all cancer research is the same and some areas of research require so much effort, attention to detail, trial and error, and dedication that most scientists would shy away to pursue other projects. Fortunately, Dr. Qing Chen of the Wistar Institute does not shy away from any challenge. Dr. Chen trained as a medical doctor in China but, after med school, became fascinated with the research side of medicine. “I felt like there were a lot of diseases that we don’t know the mechanisms, which is why we don’t know the cures.” She began researching cancer for her Ph.D., then continued her work in New York City. It was in the Big Apple that Dr. Chen decided to study one of the most complex and difficult areas in cancer research: brain metastasis.
Legacy of Hope’s Scientific Review Board selected Dr. Chen’s incredible research among 100s of other projects because of its promise to yield tangible results in the near future. In September 2019, Dr. Chen received the Legacy of Hope Merit Award for her work, as well as $15,000 in funding to continue her research. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chen to learn more about her projects and get her insights into the unique field of brain metastasis research.
“There is not enough research on brain metastasis, even though it causes so much drama for patients. There is almost no therapy to treat this disease, there is barely any information in databases for brain cancer,” Dr. Chen explains. The goal of her research is to pave new roads in controlling the spread of cancers to the brain, a condition that causes intense complications and is frequently a terminal diagnosis.
“We’re trying to understand the metastasis, how will brain tissue respond to the cancer which is attacking it. The cancer cell is the seed and the brain is the soil. The cell must get all the nutrients it needs to grow. Instead of only focusing on how to cure the cancer cells in the brain, we want to understand the communication between the brain and the cancer cells so we can cut off that communication and control the disease.”
I asked Dr. Chen why cancer spreading to the brain causes such a unique set of problems. She explained “The brain doesn’t respond to existing therapies very well. Brain cells are very unique and only exist in the brain, nowhere else in the body. Many medications do not work well in the brain because they won’t cross from the bloodstream.”
To further complicate what is already extremely complex research, Dr. Chen and her team have difficulty obtaining lab specimens with which they can perform experiments. “We need to find the right surgeons to work with us who are willing to ship us samples of brain cells with metastasis so we can conduct our experiments. Building up the kind of database we need will take a lot of work and a lot of time.
With such a laborious path ahead of her, Dr. Chen wishes she could spend every minute in her lab performing research. A perfect world of infinite research funding does not exist, however, so she spends at least half of her time writing grants, reviewing proposals, and meeting with people to help fund her research. “The cost of research has increased a lot; even an R01 grant isn’t enough. It’s frustrating when you want to experiment on something but can’t afford to do it.”
Dr. Chen did not miss an opportunity to thank Legacy of Hope and our donors for providing financial support which keeps her research moving forward. “Support from [Legacy of Hope] helps us pursue new or risky ideas which would yield tremendous results but don’t have enough evidence yet to secure National Institute of Health funding.”
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