Fly-Fishing for Cancer Cures
By Danielle LaVaque-Manty
Cheng-Yu Lee's parents hoped he would become a doctor, and when he enrolled in college, he planned to fulfill their expectations. Once he started doing research during his junior year at the University of Maryland, College Park, however, "I said forget about the medicine thing."
When Lee became fascinated by the topic of cell death as an undergraduate, he decided to study the role of autophagy in the context of animal development in graduate school. Lee's father, a professor of pharmacology who was interested in synthesizing new anti-cancer drugs, died of cancer when Lee was just twelve years old.
"I was always fascinated by anything that might be related to cancer and could potentially lead to the discovery of cancer treatments. I learned that cell death is a very important part of the whole pathology of cancer, and so I just kept on reading more and more."
Lee did his graduate work at College Park as well. Born in Taiwan, he came to the U.S. at the age of nineteen. He says he considers Maryland, where he lived for ten years, his second "home state." He is grateful to his graduate adviser, Eric Baerhrecke, now a good friend and colleague, for "providing the training I needed to become an independent thinker and researcher."
After six years in graduate school, he decided to switch to stem cells. "I wanted to understand how I could keep cells continuously growing and proliferating and making new progeny instead of just going ahead and committing to death." Currently, he uses Drosophila neural stem cells to study molecular mechanisms that lead cells either to self-renew or to differentiate.
This work, too, may be useful in developing cancer treatments. "Many of the genes we are pursuing right now are tumor suppressors, so when they are not functioning properly, animal models show that these poor critters develop tumor formation. It turns out that many tumors are derived from cancer stem cells that keep tumors continuously growing until they eventually spread out and invade different tissues."
Lee says curiosity drives his research, and a sense of competitiveness gets him past any rough patches he encounters. "When I encounter failure, I get a little bit down, just like everyone else. But I'm not going to cave in to short-term frustration. I guess I want to win."
He did his post-doctoral work at the University of Oregon, where he found an excellent mentor in Chris Doe, whom he continues to consult for advice about not only his research, but also lab management. "Most scientists don't have appropriate training as business managers," he says. "We learn our lessons the hard way."
Living in Oregon also provided him with the opportunity to enjoy his favorite outdoor activities: fly-fishing and hiking. "In Oregon, the rivers are ten or fifteen minutes away by car, and you can always go trout fishing. Every year there are salmon runs, steelhead going up the river." Lee never ate the fish he caught, though. "I don't like trout," he says. More importantly, he notes, the ones he caught were always on the small side.
If he did ever catch a big one? "I would probably keep it for my dinner."
Though he's heard there might be good fly-fishing in the Upper Peninsula, he has turned his attention to gardening since moving to Ann Arbor.
When he was offered his current position, Lee was excited about the opportunity to come to the University of Michigan and the possibility of collaborating with Sean Morrison, whose work he admires. "That was a very important factor," he says. In addition, "The University of Michigan in general is a very strong academic institution." He also likes living in a medium-sized city with "real winter," which Oregon does not have.
Lee holds appointments at the Life Sciences Institute and in the Division of Molecular Medicine and Genetics in the Department of Internal Medicine. Thus far, he has found the LSI a great place to do research. "I absolutely cannot complain about the Institute," he says. "The Institute, together with my department, provided me everything I needed to jump start my career."