As Principal Investigator, Dr. Lee conducts her innovative research with her team at the Lundquist Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA. Together with scientists and physicians both in the community and around the world, her research team focuses on various aspects of how the immune system works to fight cancer and infections.
Goals and Focus
According to the National Cancer Institute an estimated 1,638,910 men and women (848,170 men and 790,740 women) will be diagnosed with cancer and 577,190 men and women will die of cancer of all sites. The on-going research aims to help address how the immune system fights cancers to find new or improved treatments in an effort to lower these figures.
The research team, led by Dr. Lee, published the results of breakthrough research that may change the future of breast cancer treatment and prevention. The team’s discovery that healthy breast tissue contains more copies of bacterial DNA than tumor tissue from breast cancer patients hints that bacteria may actually be protective. The clinical impact of this study could lead to major improvements in treatment through the development of highly innovative therapies for breast cancer, such as utilizing probiotics in treatment and prevention or using bacteria to help assess the severity of disease. These findings were published for the first time on January 2014 by PLOS ONE, the publication for the nonprofit publisher, membership and advocacy organization Public Library of Science (PLOS). Read the full article on this innovative research.
New drugs for the treatment of melanoma have had amazing success stories, but there are two problems: 1-only 10% of people treated respond and 2-eventually the cancer comes back. All people are different; their immune systems will vary. Not everyone will need a certain pathway. We have found that immune pathways are present in tumors of metastatic melanoma patients who have long term survival, pointing again to the importance of the immune system in cancer. By continuing to study the differences in those long term survivors compared to those who succumbed to cancer, we will identify the common themes of immunity that make up a successful immune response, allowing us to know what pathways need bolstering. Though our initial focus is on melanoma, the immune pathways we find may have relevance and be applicable to other solid tumors in general such as breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
For decades it has been observed that tumors have found ways to hide from the immune system. We our utilizing current immune methodologies to identify what factors are made by the cancer to prevent successful immunity, thus providing another target to shoot in the war against cancer. We are also studying whether mechanisms in which the immune system attacks itself (such as the autoimmune disease vitiligo, a condition that causes depigmentation of skin) can be harnessed to fight cancer.
Over the past twenty years over 5.5 billion dollars have been spent on breast cancer research. While progress has been made, there are still 40,000 deaths from breast cancer a year in the United States. To prevent the majority of cases of breast cancer, it is time to refocus our efforts on what causes the disease. While genes and radiation are among known causes of breast cancer they only represent 30% of the cases. Many women have no risk factors to explain their disease. Our work in collaboration with the Love/Avon Army of Women has provided the first report of the microbiome of the breast ductal fluid and leads us to new insights into how microbes naturally present in our tissue may interact with our human cells in cancer development as well as how our cells fight cancer.
Thank you for your interest in our efforts to meet the needs of the County of Los Angeles through our work for the underserved at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and our research at the Lundquist on the Harbor campus.
The mission of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center is to provide high quality, cost-effective, patient-centered care through leadership in medical practice, education, and research.
Having moved my research program to the Lundquist in late 2016, we are continuing our prior research efforts to improve patient outcomes through our melanoma research, identify new uses for previously understudied bacteria associated with breast cancer, and investigating how microbes in colon cancer tissue interact with the human immune system to aid (or impair) the body’s ability to fight cancer.
The rich research environment at the Lundquist opens new areas of research where the experience of my team can provide additional capabilities in immunologic and computational/bioinformatics expertise to propel new projects forward. First, we plan to investigate the microbiome on various surfaces of skin and other areas where bacteria live on patients who get Staph infections. This is in collaboration with Dr. Loren Miller and his expert team in infectious diseases who have a long standing track record studying community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA) infections and skin infections. You may have read about CA-MRSA, commonly referred to in the lay press as superbugs, and their role in various epidemics of skin infections in athletes, prisoners, and other people who have close contact with each other.
We also are initiating a pilot project investigating the potential role of microbes in fighting melanoma. Based on our experience in the study of colon cancer, we hypothesize that the bacteria found in the tumors may interact with the body’s immune system to affect the ability to fight the cancer, or perhaps cripple the immune system so that the cancer can spread more easily.