Hormel Institute doctor will use $4 million grant in search of cancer answers


There, he saw suffering, particularly among those with cancer. Those experiences remained with Liu later in life when he became Dr. Liu, a research associate at Ohio State University, and switched his research focus from the study of plants to a focus on cancer.

Earlier this month, Dr. Liu, head of the Cancer Epigenetics & Experimental Therapeutics lab and an associate professor at The Hormel Institute in Austin, Minn., was awarded a grant of nearly $4 million from the National Institutes of Health to fund a new leukemia study. The five-year study will examine how DNA methylation, a naturally occurring process, is altered by the HIF-1a transcription factor and the effects on acute myelogenous leukemia.

“We are extremely proud of Dr. Liu for his important research,” said Dr. Robert Clarke, executive director of The Hormel Institute. “This new grant from the National Cancer Institute at NIH, awarded at a time of limited funding and tremendous competition from across the US, reflects his dedication and the significance of his study,”

From food to cancer

After receiving his master’s degree and doctorate from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liu moved to the United States to do postdoctoral work at Ohio State University. There, he began working in plant research to help with agricultural staples.

Hunger, he said, is a serious problem among the poor in his native country, so conducting research with rice made sense. But in America, he said, hunger is less of a problem, and cancer causes more — and more intense — suffering.

“No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, if you have cancer that means very likely you are going to die,” Liu said.

He said his life was affected by cancer when he lived in China: He had close relatives who suffered from various forms of cancer, including an aunt who had a painful fight with stomach cancer.

Liu said it would be difficult to find anyone who has not had a family member or close friend who suffered from or died from cancer.

Goals of the study

Furthermore, unlike other diseases, cancer victims are almost always at risk of relapse because the treatment often doesn’t attack the root cause of the disease.

“No matter what kind of drug or treatment they take, they could relapse,” Liu said.

Liu said he planned to study how HIF-1a, a gene regulator, impacts DNA methylation, which causes gene transcription errors that can lead to the formation of cancer cells. By suppressing methylation, we can avoid this type of cancer.

Dr. Shujun Liu on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, at The Hormel Institute - University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Dr. Shujun Liu on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, at The Hormel Institute – University of Minnesota, Medical Research Center in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Liu said there are two goals with the study. One is to look at what drives leukemia, what mechanism starts the process. The second is to understand why patients who have responded to treatment suffer relapses.

“We want to understand why the leukemia becomes more aggressive, why after therapy you have a relapse,” he said.

Part of the problem is cancer cells, once they are formed, are heterogeneous, meaning not all cancer cells are made alike. The goal then is to use suppressors to stop their production in the first place.

Down the road

Once the role of the HIF-1a factor is better understood, and how certain suppressor treatments can help regulate the factor, Liu said he hopes the research will better predict the severity of cancer in patients and recommend the right therapies.

While Liu’s study will focus on HIF-1a’s role in acute myelogenous leukemia, that same transcription factor plays a role in other cancers as well.

And while he cautioned that how the HIF-1a transcription factor might play a role in other cancers, they would need to be studied separately, he said, “This is a shared mechanism across cancers.”