Justin Wong, 29, worked as an application engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital following graduation from Olin College of Engineering. While he enjoyed the engineering components of his job –after all, he did major in biomedical engineering – he felt called to pursue graduate work in cancer research. More than four years later, while he’s still adjusting to the climate and commuter lifestyle of Houston, he’s enjoying the opportunities of the doctoral program at The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.
What are some of the strengths of the Human & Molecular Genetics (HMG) program at the GSBS?
HMG is an incredibly diverse program. It’s so broad that you can do almost anything – translational research, medical genetics, complex genetics, bioinformatics, statistics. That’s one of the strengths because you get such broad exposure to everything. You’ve got fellow students who are in all of those areas that you can use as resources. You get tremendous breadth in your education. I think that a lot of research moving forward will happen where two disciplines intersect; students that want to thrive are going to need to communicate and have experience across multiple disciplines.
Genetics is still one of the most important players in terms of medicine going forward. Cancer is a genetic disease. There’s tremendous value in understanding genetics and the genomics of disease as a basis for starting to think about what is the underlying cause, and what are going to be the most effective therapeutic strategies moving forward. HMG perfectly positions you to be at the forefront of all of this. Everyone graduating from the HMG program is employed within one year of graduation in their field of choice.
With your engineering background, how did you decide on this field of study?
My long-term goal is to find cures for neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1). It’s a genetic disorder that is fairly common and is characterized by benign tumors that grow around your nerves or your nerve sheaths. In addition, NF1 is associated with mental disability (60-70%), and as a progressive disorder, tumors often increase in number, or may progress to malignancy as the patient ages. Half the time it’s transmitted genetically and half the time it’s a de novo mutation. My interest in NF1, and by extension cancer, is personal. I was born with NF1 (de novo case), and although there have been some struggles, I’ve also been extremely blessed because there are not many people with NF1 who are in a position to pursue a Ph.D. I’m hoping to take what I learn about cancer, and apply it to research on NF1.
Can you describe your current research?
I’m working on two projects in the lab of Ralf Krahe, Ph.D., both studying Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), a cancer predisposition syndrome, by using cancer genomics. LFS is extremely rare (only about 500 families worldwide have been diagnosed with it) and is associated with both sarcomas and pedigrees with a pervasive cancer phenotype. Although the majority of cases are caused by p53, clinical genetic testing reveals a subset of families that do not have p53 mutations. One arm of the project looks for the cause in these families, that is, other cancer predisposition genes besides p53 that are responsible for causing this phenotype. The second project is also related to LFS. Most LFS pedigrees have incomplete penetrance, suggesting that additional mutations are needed for tumorigenesis. We use comparative genomics to examine what other mutations (besides p53) are necessary for cancer to develop in this population by looking for recurrent mutations in the same gene(s) across humans and an LFS mouse model. We recently think that we made a huge breakthrough in finding the cancer predisposition gene and are currently testing for functional significance.
Our hope is that what we find has much greater impact than just these families. We hope what we find will be relevant to sporadic cancers as well and that this research could open up novel therapeutic approaches.
What are some interesting things people may not know about you?
I play the euphonium and love to cook. I’m also very involved at my church by hosting and leading community group/Bible study, and I also lead the technical team on Sundays (media and sound). Photography is another one of my hobbies; I especially enjoy taking pictures of Texas wildflowers.
My long-term goal is to find cures for neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1). I was born with NF1 (de novo case), and although there have been some struggles, I’ve also been extremely blessed...I’m hoping to take what I learn about cancer, and apply it to research on NF1.