Jianlong Wang’s motivation to devote a career to cancer is personally rooted. In 1988, he lost his 16-year-old brother to leukemia and has since witnessed other family members and friends succumb to the disease.
An expert in the proteomic studies of stem cells, Dr. Wang and his collaborators seek to understand the foundations of cancer, with an emphasis on leukemia and breast cancer. As a postdoctoral fellow, he pioneered proteomic studies in pluripotent embryonic cells (ESCs), and this work at the time led to the discovery of many novel pluripotency factors and epigenetic regulators. Dr. Wang, a member of the Tumor Biology and Microenvironment research program at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), is continuing his investigation into the novel molecular mechanism underlying embryonic and cancer stemness by studying functions of pluripotency-associated factors such as Tet1/2 and Zfp281/ZNF281 that were uncovered in earlier studies by the Wang lab in leukemogenesis, breast cancer metastasis/dormancy, and other oncogenic processes.
Dr. Wang joined the HICCC and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the fall of 2019 as professor of medical sciences in the Department of Medicine. Prior to coming to Columbia, Dr. Wang served on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and was a member of both the Tisch Cancer Institute and Black Family Stem Cell Institute.
Tell us about your research.
We are pursuing three main research directions to better our understanding of 1) the beginning of life; 2) early development; and 3) fitness and survival of living beings. We employ both genomic and proteomic approaches in combination with cellular and animal models to identify novel stemness factors and study their mechanistic actions in governing physio pathological processes in development and disease.
What are you currently working on?
We’re working on dissecting the molecular mechanisms underlying embryonic and cancer stemness, primarily at the post-transcriptional and translational levels. These include the studies of RNA modifications and translation initiation machinery in understanding development and disease using pluripotent stem cells, cancer cells and animal models. We are also exploring the use of our stem cell models for understanding host responses to viral infections including HIV-1 and SARS-CoV-2.
What motivates your research?
I’ve always been motivated by the mystery of the origin of life—from a single zygote to a whole complex body. My research is also motivated by my interest in the fascinating properties (unlimited self-renewal while maintaining multilineage differentiation) and enormous potential (replacement, regeneration, reprogramming) of stem cells and the cancer stem cell theory as well as the unique feature of stem cells in response to viral infections (intrinsic immunity).
When and how did you get interested in cancer?
Witnessing too many people, including my own brother who suffered and succumbed to cancer, was very emotional and oftentimes made me feel helpless. My hope is that my work in stem cell research will help combat or put an end to cancer.
How do you see your work having an impact?
We are gradually shifting our interests in understanding basic stem cell biology towards applying what we have learned in pluripotent stem cells for unraveling the molecular mechanism underlying the stemness of cancer. Owing to the intrinsic connection between pluripotency and tumorigenesis, we believe our stem cell platform will lead to the discovery and dissection of stemness factors and molecular pathways that may operate in tumors, providing novel targets for cancer intervention and treatment.
What drew you to Columbia and to the HICCC?
The long and distinguished history of Columbia University, an outstanding and comprehensive array of academic programs, and a community of scientists across Columbia’s leading research programs and departments made Columbia a top choice when it came time for me to consider further advancing my scientific career in the Greater New York area. Joining the HICCC was a natural choice for me due to my personal interest in cancer research. What attracted me the most is the HICCC’s rich resources and supporting facilities as well as the top talents that the Center brings together in both basic and clinical research to solve and combat cancer.
Can you talk about any HICCC related collaborations at the moment?
My lab relocated here just last November across town (from Mount Sinai). We are eager to explore collaborations with the HICCC research laboratories that share similar interests and have complementary expertise to achieve a common goal: to fight and eradicate cancer.