You may have noticed that Fall has finally arrived and department stores are gearing up with the type of seasonal items that are synonymous with giving. Whether it’s trick-or-treat candy, Thanksgiving cornucopias, or holiday decorations, it’s also worth noting that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and three leading researchers on campus are currently at work to give significant contributions to the community: answers in cancer research.

Award winners Dr. Jiyong Lee, Dr. Nikki Delk, and Dr. Jie Zheng dedicate their lives to discovering breakthroughs that aim to change the face of cancer and save lives across the globe. This October, as we celebrate cancer research and our favorite Fall color – Pink! – we’ve asked them to share insight on why cancer research is important to them.

In 2016, an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 595,690 people will die from the disease.

Jiyong Lee, PhD - Assistant Professor, Chemical Biology
Dr. Jiyong Lee, PhD – Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Dr. Jiyong Lee is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and was awarded the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in May 2015.  His research goals involve developing technologies and molecules to assist with cancer metastasis, drug resistance, and recurrence.

“Scientists worldwide have been working very hard to develop various treatment options for cancer patients so that they can have normal lives. However, until cancer is conquered and becomes a disease only found in history, we should continue doing research to discover more efficient and safer treatments. While researchers like us do not meet or treat cancer patients everyday like medical doctors do, I believe we should feel the same level of responsibility to make new discoveries. In our research group, we try to tackle some of biggest challenges in the cancer research area. Currently, we are developing new drug candidates that are effective against cancer stem cells and triple-negative breast cancer that are associated with tumor relapse and high metastasis.”

Cancer mortality is higher among men than women. It is highest in African American men and lowest in Asian/Pacific Islander women. (Based on 2008-2012 deaths.)

Dr. Nikki Delk is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences who was awarded a Career Development K Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and served as a UT Dallas – Mexico summer faculty member. Her research interests are centered around the effect of inflammation on autophagy and autophagy-related proteins in breast and prostate cancer cell survival and treatment resistance.

“Almost everyone I know has been affected by cancer directly or indirectly. Just in the past few years, I have known several young women in their 30’s and 40’s who were fighting breast cancer. Not everyone survived. These women are one driving force for why I take my job so seriously and have so much passion for what I do. But the reason I became a cancer researcher, and the core reason for why cancer research is so important to me, is my grandmother, Jean Celestine Harris. My grandmother died of brain cancer on the eve of what would be, 22 years later, the day I was awarded my doctorate. It was my mom and my aunt who brought that to my attention and I believe it was God’s divine intervention.

Dr. Nikki Delk (right), PhD – Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

“Prior to her diagnosis, my grandmother was not a typical grandmother – she did not cook, she dyed her hair auburn, she drove a black Camero sports car, wore designer clothes, and was a career woman who made more money than my grandfather – very unusual for a women born in the 1930’s. My grandmother was “cool.” She was also extremely intelligent. She graduated from high school and entered college at 16 years old.

“My grandmother had a tremendous influence on who I would become – I also do not cook, I drive a black sports car, I am an academic and career-driven, and some might say I’m “cool”. When my grandmother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I was still in elementary school, so when she had to leave her job due to her illness, she became my full-time babysitter. I remember my times with her so vividly and they influence who I am today. I remember lying next to her while she cried, but no tears would fall because the chemo-radiation had destroyed her tear ducts. I remember standing at her dresser, playing with her wigs that she used to cover up the treatment-induced loss of her beautiful auburn hair while she looked on smiling, too fatigued to get out of bed. I remember how we would celebrate the sparse wefts of hair that would grow back – as I brushed her hair, I remember how incredibly soft it felt.

“She was so kind, so patient, so wonderful, and she was taken from my family way too soon because of a horrid disease – cancer. So, Jean Celestine Harris is why cancer research is so important to me and single reason I chose cancer research as a career. My friends and family affected by cancer are my continuous driving force, and because so many people share a similar story as mine, being able to be a part of the research and treatment efforts being made by so many wonderful, gifted, and passionate scientists, clinicians, and staff keeps me motivated and I know makes my grandmother in Heaven proud.”

National expenditures for cancer care in the United States totaled nearly $125 billion in 2010 and could reach $156 billion in 2020.

Dr. Jie Zheng is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Urology at UTSW Medical Center.  He received three awards from  the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) since 2011. His research is focused on developing renal clearable nanomedicines for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Jie Zheng (right), PhD - Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biology
Dr. Jie Zheng (right), PhD – Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biology

“There are many reasons of why we are studying cancer research. Cancer remains a leading cause for human death after decades of efforts. We often hear stories of cancer patients around us about how badly cancer affects their lives and how hard they fight with cancer. In many moments, we wish we could do something to help cancer patients in this battle. As a chemist, and together with my colleagues and students who have the same belief, we are developing nanomedicines to help diagnose cancers earlier, help surgeons to remove cancerous tissues more accurately and more completely during the surgery, help minimize side effects during chemotherapy, and eventually help improve the quality of life of cancer patients. It is not an easy journey; we are also trying to advance our fundamental understanding of cancer in this battle. Cancer research also represents a great learning opportunity for us and also forces us to see the limit of our tools and the boundary of our knowledge, so that we use new understandings to develop more innovative and more effective tools for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, cancer research also serves as a bridge to connect us with other cancer researchers in this field. Cancer research is highly interdisciplinary. In many cases, it cannot be done without close collaborations. In the past years, the number of our collaborators increased from one to eight or even more, and we also are touching different sub fields of cancer research and developing different tools and treatments for different types of cancers. Cancer research is a team effort for us and I am truly appreciating all the support from my students, collaborators, and colleagues during this challenging course.”

Early detection is key. Regular cancer screenings assist in finding cancer before symptoms appear and increases the success of treatment. This Fall, give yourself the gift of health knowledge and schedule an appointment with your physician.