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Serendipity in Science: Winter 2017

Chris Lieu, Stephen Leong and Traci Lyons Discuss their journeys that led them to their careers

Chris Lieu, MD – Director of the CU Cancer Colorectal Oncology Program

When I was an intern at the VA, Stephen Leong was a fellow at the same hospital and because we looked alike, we were always being mistaken for each other – people would be asking me for chemotherapy orders, which was way beyond my experience at the time, and asking him to handle a patient’s potassium replacement, which is an intern’s job! Through this ongoing case of mistaken identity, we got to know each other pretty well and talking with Steve helped spark my interest in hematology and oncology. When I was looking for a research mentor, Steve introduced me to his mentor, Dr. Gail Eckhardt, MD, here at CU who became my scientific mentor and helped propel me into a fellowship at MD Anderson. And that was my start! I like to think that Steve and I would have become friends even without people thinking that we were one person, but I’m really not sure where my career would have led without this lucky mix-up.

Stephen Leong, MD- Associate Professor, Division of Medical Oncology, CU School of Medicine
A handful of years ago, I was the principal investigator on a phase I clinical trial of a new drug being tested to treat a range of advanced solid tumor types. One of the patients on the trial happened to have adrenal cancer, a rare, aggressive cancer that is most commonly diagnosed in patients in their 40s and 50s. Though the drug didn’t go on to earn FDA approval, this patient had a reasonable stronger response and he posted about his experience in a support forum for people with adrenal cancer. Suddenly he started getting calls from all over the country from patients who wanted to explore having their adrenal cancer treated here at CU. Now, very few centers are able to do research in adrenal cancer – there just aren’t enough patients at any once center to draw meaningful conclusions. But there we were because of this forum post all of a sudden seeing three, four, even five adrenal cancer patients every week. With patients’ permission, we started banking tumor samples to use for experiments and out team here has become a real leader in the field of adrenal cancer research.

Traci Lyons, PhD- Assistant Professor, Division of Medical Oncology, CU School of Medicine
In 2014, I had just learned I was getting my own lab and decided that I would focus part of my research on how cancer cells migrate through lymphatic vessels. To get up to speed, I decided to attend a research conference in Italy on lymphatics and happened to notice on the list of attendees the name Beth Tamburini. She and I had been in grad school together here at CU and I noticed that, like me, she was also still here. Out of the blue, I emailed her and said, “I’ll see you in Italy!” and we ended up spending the conference catching up. It turned out that Beth is in immunology, studying how lymph vessels work with the immune system. And I was studying how lymph vessels provide avenues for cancer metastasis. We kept in touch but we were both busy and it was another two years before we got back in touch…at another conference! This time when we talked, we decided on an experiment we wanted to do together. Basically, for various reasons, we wanted to see if a protein called Semaphorin 7A would make mouse models of cancer grow more lymph vessels. The idea was we would give some mice regular cancer cells and others cancer cells overexpressing Semaphorin 7A and then compare the growth of lymph vessels. But we accidentally put some cancer cells into mice with an antigen that activated the immune system – when these immune systems rejected cancer cells before tumors could grow, it looked like a failed experiment. However, it turned out that not all our cancer cells were rejected. The ones that had been engineered to overexpress Semaphorin 7A survived. We thought this pro-tein would result in more lymph vessels, but what we learned is that it dampens the immune system in a way that can help cancer grow. Now we have a grant from Cancer League of Colorado to figure out how. And we think that Semaphorin 7A – this protein whose effect we stumbled onto purely by chance – might actually be a marker for patients who will benefit from immunotherapy.​​