Every cell in the human body has the same genetic instruction manual, but different cells read from different chapters to do their jobs. Van Andel Institute’s Dr. Hong Wen investigates how this process — called epigenetics — affects normal health and disease, with a special focus on tough-to-treat pediatric cancers.
VAI Voice caught up with Dr. Wen to chat about her research, why she became a scientist and how discovery drives innovation.
What do you study?
Dr. Wen: I study epigenetic regulation of gene expression in human cells. Epigenetics means beyond genetics, or the regulation of genetic information. All of the cells in our body share the same set of genetic information stored in DNA, but distinct types of cells carry out very different functions. This is because our DNA is differentially regulated in different cells and in response to different environmental cues. Currently my lab studies epigenetic regulation of gene expression in pediatric cancers, including acute myeloid leukemia and Wilms’ tumor.
What are the implications for human health?
Dr. Wen: Epigenetics is implicated in all aspects of human health, from early development to aging, and to various human diseases, including cancer. Therefore, studying the basic mechanisms underlying epigenetic regulation will allow us to come up with new avenues for disease treatment.
Why did you become a scientist?
Dr. Wen: Curiosity! When I was a kid, one of my neighbors who was a biology teacher had lots of plants and pets. I spent a lot of time watching the plants grow and playing with the pets, including a rabbit I named “Little White,” and asking numerous naïve questions. I believe that this is when I became interested in biology. Later in college, I chose biochemistry as my major and I found that the “invisible” molecular world is even more fascinating. Exploring the unknowns is definitely the beauty of doing science: you ask a question, come up with a hypothesis and find ways to test it. During this process, you will have more questions to ask and answer, again and again.
What is the coolest or most surprising thing about your research?
Dr. Wen: Our work is known as basic research because it seeks to understand the fundamental gene regulation processes in cells. I could never imagine that I would be able to develop small-molecule compounds that have such great clinical potential. Not only us, several academic laboratories and pharmaceutical companies from all over the world are actively pursuing drug discoveries that are all based on the findings we made a few years ago. It is really cool that one day what we discovered on the bench may actually benefit patients at the bedside.