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Wu Chen, Ph.D.
Professor, National Cancer Hospital, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences

Seize the day and let your dreams guide you

Wu Chen is a sixth-generation scientist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studying esophageal cancer, a disease that disproportionally affects the Chinese population. As a physician-scientist studying the disease for over 15 years, she has become a bridge between her patients and science, bringing problems found by the bedside to the lab bench for solutions. Shouldering a long line of research and patients’ expectations, Wu is determined to provide better care and combat esophageal cancer.

When the car drove into Henan, deep into the hills by the foot of the eastern Taihang Mountains, groups of old farmers in the fields came into Chen Wu’s view.

Some of them may be cases on the patient list for her epidemiology group to follow-up. Some of them may be Dr. Wu’s patients, whom she screened for esophageal cancer. Others may have relatives that passed away from esophageal cancer who were treated by Dr. Wu.

The fields are located in Linzhou, Henan, a high-risk region for esophageal cancer in China. Wu and her colleagues and students visit every month to screen the at-risk locals for tumors and to provide treatment.

Wu and her colleagues brought the most advanced screening tools and treatment plans from the laboratory at the National Cancer Center, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to rural areas of Linzhou. They hope to reduce the morbidity rate and alleviate the suffering of patients through early detection and intervention. At the same time, they are grateful for the volunteers and patients who allow them to dig into the disease’s etiology and hopefully defeat it one day.

Seize the day and let your dreams guide you. Wu has been focusing on esophageal cancer research for 15 years. She emphasizes that her research purpose is built on her patients’ needs, and “screening out early-stage patients as soon as possible and giving late-stage patients precision treatments and hope” is her goal.

“We must always remember that we have to be with the patients to understand what they need first, and then return to the lab to study solutions.”

Following her heart, Wu pursued her scientific research career, showing her talent and reaching for her goals.

Taking over the national mission of enlightening esophageal cancer research in China

At the Cancer Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Wu is a sixth-generation researcher on esophageal cancer and currently serves as a professor, researcher, and PhD advisor. “Studying esophageal cancer is a responsibility that Chinese scientists must shoulder and it’s our generation’s duty,” Wu has said in multiple public speeches and interviews. The history of it can be traced back to Linzhou, Henan.

In 1959, the Prime Minister of China, Enlai Zhou, instructed Ritan Hospital (now Tumor Hospital) of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (along with several other hospitals and research institutes) to focus on Linxian County (now Linzhou), Henan Province. The goal was to investigate the incidence of esophageal cancer. They established the first epidemiological investigation base for esophageal cancer in China, with an official mission for comprehensive prevention and treatment of the cancer.

With modern medical intervention, esophageal cancer incidence in Linzhou, Henan, and other parts of the country has been controlled and the mortality rate has gradually decreased. However, the cause of the disease has yet to be discovered and China still has the highest morbidity and mortality rate of esophageal cancer in the world. Unlike Europeans and Americans who are susceptible to esophageal adenocarcinoma, most patients in China are diagnosed with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Although the latter accounts for 90% of esophageal cancer cases worldwide, Chinese scientists face esophageal squamous cell carcinoma on their own.

Starting from Linzhou, Henan in 1959, scientists before Wu first studied cancer from an epidemiological perspective and later introduced biochemical and genomics research approaches. The entire history of esophageal cancer study in the country is contained in six generations and more than sixty years of perseverance in scientific research.

The entire history of esophageal cancer study in the country is contained in six generations and more than sixty years of perseverance in scientific research.

There is a long way to go, but progress is being made, one step at a time. Wu completed her PhD studies under Dr. Dongxin Lin at the Peking Union Medical College and finished her postdoctoral training at Harvard University. Wu has been conducting genetic and genomics research in areas with a high incidence of esophageal cancer, such as Henan and Shanxi, holding the torch that researchers from the previous generations passed down.

Moving basic and clinical research forward with benevolence

Today, the goal of studying esophageal cancer is not only to solve a national problem but also to relieve patients’ pain. In Wu’s perspective, this is the “deal” she promised her research participants without saying it out loud.

Wu’s research requires collecting samples from patients with esophageal cancer in addition to following up on the progression of their treatment. “The best way to map the cancer is by following the disease progression of an individual from healthy to early-stage and late-stage.” In her 5 to 10 years of research collaboration with participants, Wu’s not the only one who is pouring her heart into the study.

These people don’t exactly understand the research, but they know the team and trust Wu enough to become long-term volunteers for the project.

Wu says that every time her team visits Linzhou, Henan, for tumor screening, locals would meet up with them. These people don’t exactly understand the research, but they know the team and trust Wu enough to become long-term volunteers for the project. To Wu, who grew up in a big city, this kind of faith means a greater responsibility. “Their hospitality makes you want to do better in cancer research!”

Majoring in clinical medicine in undergraduate studies, Wu has seen her fair share of life-or-death situations. She knows that esophageal cancer is painful for patients. Whether it’s because of a physician’s benevolence or her trying to return the local participants’ trust, Wu wants her patients’ experience to guide the research, bringing problems found by the bedside back to the lab bench for answers. She hopes to find the best solution for her patients and advance clinical research.

In recent years, she illustrated the world’s most extensive esophageal cancer genome map with the help of young scientists in her lab. The team discovered tumor susceptibility and cancer-driving genes unique to the Chinese population, providing fundamental knowledge for screening and prevention in high-risk groups.

“This is also the reason and advantage for doing scientific research in the Cancer Hospital,” says Wu. Her team is always thinking of ways to integrate basic research topics and clinical practices. “Basic research and clinical practice cannot be separated. They’re an interdisciplinary science.”

Lately, the central government in Beijing has also promoted the development of interdisciplinary research in medicine. Wu praised the central government for becoming more inclusive and showing great interest in translating basic research to clinical applications. “Beijing’s push for implementing multidisciplinary research will help promote the importance of it to the rest of the country. It will also boost the momentum of medical advancement.” Wu looks forward to taking this opportunity for further bench-to-bedside research endeavors.

Asserting the patient’s contribution with a feminine touch

When asked what the advantages are of being a female scientist, Wu always says science has nothing to do with gender.

Nevertheless, Wu’s feminine side, the gentleness and attentiveness, has made her more aware of the patients’ needs. Even for patients with late-stage esophageal cancer who cannot undergo surgery, Wu still wants to give them hope. Years of clinical experience have made her realize “When someone is desperate, the person depends and trusts their doctors even more. They’ll ask all kinds of questions because, at that moment, we’re like their savior.” Therefore, Wu asks her students to take extra care of late-stage patients and designs her teaching based on patients’ needs, such as providing hospice care.

The sincerity and familiarity people often find in women also helped Wu gain the trust of locals. She would patiently and cordially call her patients to remind them of their tumor screening. She doesn’t call her local patients during wheat-harvesting seasons because she understands that they are busy and that the harvest is critically important. “Every December, the number of surgeries in Linzhou, Henan, will drop. Why? Because people don’t want to have surgery during the Chinese New Year,” says Wu. However, she never presses on the question because she knows that when the Chinese New Year holiday rolls around, the locals’ children will visit, and they’ll have the surgery after the holiday.

In her view, an individual’s achievement is not defined by their appearances but lies in the purpose and results of their research and their dedication to patient care.

However, when it comes to scientific research, gender is irrelevant. “People invite me to give lectures or participate in international conferences not because I’m a female scientist, but because they want to listen to my latest research progress,” says Wu. In her view, an individual’s achievement is not defined by their appearances but lies in the purpose and results of their research and their dedication to patient care.

Holding the torch of esophageal cancer research that was passed down to her and shouldering patients’ expectations with a feminine touch, Wu is integrating basic research and clinical application. She will always stand by her patients – no matter how long it takes to combat esophageal cancer – with her best intentions marching forward.