60 seconds with Eui Jung Moon
Eui Jung Moon is a Group Leader in Radiation Biology and the tumour microenvironment. Here, Eui Jung tells us about her research and the importance of collaboration. She also shares some advice about developing a career in Oncology.
Tell us about your research
My research focuses on determining how microenvironments affect tumour progression and patient prognosis. We are specifically interested in hypoxia, or low oxygen tensions in tumours. Due to rapid proliferation and the imbalance between oxygen consumption and supply, tumour cells are often under hypoxic conditions. Hypoxia modulates a variety of factors in tumour biology including metastasis, angiogenesis, and glycolytic metabolism through activation of the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathways. Hypoxia is also significantly correlated with resistance to radiation and chemotherapy, which results in poor patient outcome. By understanding the molecular mechanisms of tumour hypoxia, we aim to identify novel pathways to target cancer. We primarily study HIF target genes to investigate how they are regulated and what role they play in tumours under hypoxic conditions. Recently we demonstrated MAFF, a bZIP transcription factor is induced by HIF-1 under hypoxic conditions and it enhances tumour invasion and metastasis. Currently we have expanded our studies to evaluate the role of MAFF in tumour metabolism.
What topics are you pursuing in the lab?
In our lab, we are interested in the interplay between hypoxia and tumour progression. Our aims are 1) to understand the underlying mechanisms of hypoxia-induced biological and physiological changes in cancer and 2) to target the tumour hypoxia effect through genetic manipulation or a microenvironmental switch. To identify key genes or pathways involved in hypoxia-mediated tumour survival and invasion, we performed esiRNA screening methods combined with the invasion assay using collagen. Through our RNA sequencing, we also validated genes that are regulated by hypoxia as well as our gene of interest, MAFF. We plan to further investigate metabolic changes of tumour cells under hypoxia with or without MAFF expression and determine how to enhance effects of radiation treatment.
Are there any challenges involved?
The biggest challenge is determining how to transfer the purpose of our research into clinical settings. Although the gap between the bench and the bedside is still huge, as a scientist in the MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, bringing benefits to patients is our main interest. It requires a deep understanding of tumour biology as well as the ability to see the big picture of radiation biology as a treatment for patients.
Why does your research matter?
Hypoxia is one of hallmarks of cancer, which governs a variety of pathways. We specifically found that MAFF, a bZIP transcription factor, is induced by hypoxia and promotes tumour invasion and metastasis. Previously, the role of MAFF was simply known as a binding partner for other transcription factors such as NRF2 or BACH1 to support their binding to DNA promoters and regulate antioxidant responses. Our finding indicates that MAFF is a leading factor for regulating gene expression under hypoxia and plays a significant role in tumour progression. We hope to further understand how MAFF regulates the interplay between tumour invasion and metabolic switches and identify targetable pathways that enhance patient treatment outcome.
What’s a typical day like in the lab?
It has been only about a year since the start of the pandemic, but typical days sound like a long time ago! Due to the unconventional circumstances, most of lab activities are restricted and working closely with colleagues or doing data analysis in the lab might be defined as “forbidden activities”. Experiments need to be done in a time efficient manner and I do not really need to rush out to pick up my child from the nursery anymore. Still, thanks to modern technology, science is moving forward. We still communicate with other scientists and make advancements in science, albeit remotely. Anyhow, these days, a typical day in the lab might be “be done quickly in the lab and stay home”.
Tell us about your career so far
I received my PhD degree from Duke University with Dr. Mark Dewhirst, while studying the effect of mild hyperthermia on tumour reoxygenation. I then did postdoctoral training at Stanford University to identify the hypoxia target gene and study its role in tumour invasion and metastasis. My research also included the role of hypoxia-regulated pathways in DNA damage and radiation resistance. As a group leader in the MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, I would like to further investigate how hypoxia helps tumour cells adapt to their microenvironment by switching metabolic pathways.
Is there any support from others which you have particularly valued?
While building up my career in science, my family has been my number one source of support. I could not have made the big decision to move from the US to the UK without my family who trusted and supported my decision. Guidance and encouragement from mentors and colleagues has also been valuable motivation for me to continue my research. Mentorship will be a lantern or a boat to help your ship through the dark and deep ocean. Also, you need good colleagues who are open to discussion and eager to help. In the end, two or more brains are better than one.
What piece of advice would you give to researchers looking to develop their career in Oncology?
There is a wide range of ongoing research in the Oncology field, but we all have the same interest: to defeat cancer. Whether you are a molecular biologist or a clinical scientist, we need to keep the bigger picture of our research in mind: what will it lead to? Also, as a scientist, patience and persistence will be another value needed to endure your years of work.
What motivates you as a scientist?
As a cancer biologist, I want to make a difference. Even though it might only be a subtle change, it keeps me going when I think that my study can be a slight hope for those who fight against cancer and for their lives.