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Featured Scientist Story | Justin Tan: Regulate Cancer Cell Fate - A Race with the Goddess of Destiny

Release date:2021-12-20

According to data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is still a major killer facing humanity in the world today. Cancer is the second leading cause of death around the world, killing approximately 10 million people every year. About one in six deaths worldwide are caused by cancer. After witnessing his family and friends suffer from cancer,   Justin Tan  is determined to devote himself to the research of cancer mechanisms and anti-cancer drugs. He and his group hope to deeply understand the molecular mechanisms of cancer cells, and discover new potential drug targets and treatment methods for cancer. They believe that in this race with the goddess of destiny, the dawn of life will be found eventually for all mankind.

Justin TAN
Institute of Cancer Research
Junior Principal Investigator

01  Still an incurable disease for many

I was born and raised in Singapore. My parents did not go to college, and I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship from the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research in Singapore to pursue a bachelor’s and Ph.D. in science in the US. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, like many graduates, I was unsure if I should continue in a scientific career or do something else. During a gap year before my Ph.D. studies, I worked as a research assistant at the Genome Institute of Singapore. In that same year, I witnessed the tragic passing of a family friend from colorectal cancer. I also found out that a close friend of mine in college came down with leukemia and was undergoing aggressive treatment. I realized that current cancer therapies had many shortcomings and that a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence for many. I was deeply affected by these experiences, and this was when I decided to commit myself to finding new treatments and possibly a cure for cancer.

02 Regulate cancer cell fate by developing new drugs

Our group focuses on drugging the cancer cell fate. We want to understand in detail how normal cells change their fate into a cancerous one. Cell fate changes are governed by a class of genes called lineage transcription factors. These factors convert our cells’ instruction manual, DNA, into messenger molecules called RNA, which then instruct cells to change their function. In cancer, many of these lineage transcription factors are mis-regulated, resulting in the conversion of a normal cell into a cancer cell fate. One way to reverse this effect is to block the function of these lineage factors, which can lead to tumor shrinkage. Currently, however, we do not have any drugs that can do this. The structures of many of these factors remain unknown, so intelligent drug design is still out of the question.
In our lab, we aim to understand in more detail how lineage transcription factors utilize other proteins to achieve their cancer cell fate function. We also aim to design new techniques to efficiently discover drug-like molecules that target these lineage transcription factors. In this way, we will provide new knowledge to further our understanding of cancer and set the stage for the development of new and effective cancer therapies for patients.

03 Be part of the innovation ecosystem

SZBL has an excellent research environment. The offer from SZBL came with the promise of high caliber senior faculty mentors, a collaborative atmosphere, state of the art facilities, shared equipment, and generous research funding. This is everything a young faculty member can ask for. The ability to pursue my research interests freely and independently was what attracted me the most.
In fact, I feel that China, especially Shenzhen, has strongly supported and invested heavily in basic research. Basic research is the source of innovation and the cornerstone of the scientific system, and I wanted to be part of this ecosystem.
The institute of Cancer Research has set up a world-class oncological research team. I am deeply honored to be able to join such an excellent team. At SZBL, my short-term goal is to publish one or more high impact papers in prestigious scientific journals and my long-term goal is to spin-off a company from my research that develops effective cancer therapeutics for patients. I hope that our research can enable more cancer patients to lead a better life.

Click here to explore more about Justin Tan and his group.