September 01, 2022
From a small village in China to MD Anderson: Genomic medicine researcher looks to the future of big data in cancer care
BY Molly Adams
As an associate professor in Genomic Medicine, Linghua Wang, M.D., Ph.D., studies how normal cells become cancerous and how cancer cells develop resistance to drugs.
She and her lab are working to identify the earliest events during tumor progression from precancerous diseases to discover new biomarkers and targets for the development of effective interception strategies.
The lab is also focused on understanding cellular plasticity, which is how cancer cells adapt to the microenvironment and avoid being attacked by the immune system or cancer treatments.
“Cellular plasticity contributes to cancer development, progression and metastasis. If we can better understand this process, we can develop effective treatment strategies to overcome drug resistance,” Wang says.
As she looks toward the future, she reflects on the challenges she’s overcome to get to where she is today.
A desire for a different path
Growing up in a small village in China, Wang was expected to follow a traditional path for young women — to become a housewife and take care of children. In fact, with three younger brothers at home to take care of, she wasn’t supposed to advance beyond middle school.
“I knew I wanted a different life for myself,” Wang says. She worked hard and earned great grades, which caught the attention of her teachers and the school principal, who encouraged Wang’s parents to let her continue her education.
Wang did so well in school that she earned scholarships to pay for college, where her love of learning grew. “I never had books of my own to read growing up,” she says. “The first time I saw the library, I couldn’t believe there were so many books.”
Earning an M.D., then Ph.D.
Wang grew up with the goal of becoming a doctor so she could help people. After medical school, she earned a license to practice ophthalmology. But a few months later, her husband was admitted to a Ph.D. program in Tokyo, Japan.
“I didn’t want to live apart, but I knew I would have had to start my medical school all over again to be able to practice in Japan, so I decided to move with my husband and find a new career,” she says.
For the first few months in Japan, Wang wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. But she did know one thing: “I didn’t want to be just a housewife, so I started looking for a job that would keep me constantly learning.” She was hired as a research fellow in a cancer genetics laboratory.
“I learned about cancer cells and couldn’t wait to learn more,” she says. So, she enrolled in a Ph.D. program in cancer genomics at the University of Tokyo, studying pancreatic cancer.
“It opened a whole new world for me and fueled my passion,” Wang says. “I realized that studying the cancer genome can transform cancer diagnosis and treatment and help cancer patients. After that, I was hooked on cancer genomics and data science.”
Making connections at MD Anderson
After earning her Ph.D., Wang and her family moved to Houston in 2012, where she completed her postdoctoral training at Baylor College of Medicine and joined their research faculty.
She wanted to become an independent investigator so that she could build and grow her own lab. In 2016, she was invited to speak at the Annual Human Genome Meeting, where she met Andy Futreal, Ph.D., chair of Genomic Medicine at MD Anderson.
“I walked up to him and asked if he had any tenure-track faculty positions,” she recalls. “I felt so lucky to meet Dr. Futreal, who recruited me to MD Anderson. He is always there whenever I need his support and he provided the platform for me to find my own way to shine.”
Wang credits MD Anderson’s team science approach for her interest in establishing a lab here in 2017. “MD Anderson is an exceptional place to work with resources and facilities unlike anywhere else. We have so many talented scientists here, and it is such a wonderful place to collaborate. Working closely as a team, we’re making meaningful contributions to patient care,” she says.
Wang’s lab aims to harness the potential of big data to fight cancer. “I’m thrilled about the future of big data in cancer care and the work we’re doing in the lab. I want to bring in new researchers who love the work and are just as motivated and ambitious as I am.”
Finding a balance between work and home life
With three young kids at home, Wang says being a mother helps her be a better leader. “Parenthood has taught me to communicate more effectively, and to be more compassionate with members of my lab,” she says.
It also helps her manage her time. “I have a very busy schedule, constantly going from one meeting to the next, and with tight deadlines for grants and manuscripts,” she says. “So, I have to manage my time wisely to make sure I can spend quality time with my family, too.”
Outside the lab, she likes to travel with her family and finds that cooking meals for them feeds her creative side. “I love testing new recipes and seeing my family enjoy trying something new,” she says. “Cooking is my mental break, and it’s nice to make something without having to look at a screen, like I do throughout the workday.”
The future of genomic medicine
Wang believes the rise in data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence will advance precision and predictive oncology and accelerate drug development.
“We will be able to accurately predict patient’s response to therapy as well as the risk of recurrence and adverse effects and choose the best possible treatment for patients,” she says.
And, perhaps most importantly, by using big data and predictive analytics to determine cancer risk, Wang believes researchers will be able to identify better biomarkers to detect cancer early and develop better prevention strategies to reduce the risk of getting cancer.
“I expect to see successful integration of data science and clinical practice in the near future,” Wang says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
I expect to see successful integration of data science and clinical practice in the near future.
Linghua Wang, M.D., Ph.D.