Lee studies the role of enzymes in immune response to cancer cells developed from conception
VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Eun Lee, Ph.D., joined Massey as a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program in 2015. She previously joined the faculty at the VCU School of Medicine in 2014 as an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
As a member of the CMG program, Lee studies the role of a peptide-processing enzyme, endoplasmic reticulum aminopeptidase 2 (ERAP2), in relation to the immune system’s surveillance of and response to choriocarcinoma (uterine cancer) cells.
For Lee, she had not intended to carve out a niche as a cancer biologist, but she came across something in her early research work that tied to cancer. Her original studies centered on how the presence of immune cells in the uterus during the course of pregnancy contributed to pregnancy-related disorders such as preeclampsia, early-term miscarriages and pre-term birth. In the course of her research, Lee realized there was a parallel between the development of a pregnancy and the growth of cancer: the vast reproduction of cells.
“The main difference is that pregnancy knows when to terminate the division of cells. It’s timed. Cancer doesn’t stop. The cells keep on multiplying,” Lee said.
Lee examined cells derived from gestational choriocarcinoma, a tumor developed from cells left behind from pregnancy, and found that approximately half of them were missing the same proteins, ERAP2, that were found to be elevated in cases of preeclampsia she is studying.
Preeclampsia affects at least five percent of all pregnancies, and is characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.
Her current research focuses on re-introducing the ERAP2 enzyme into cancerous cells in hopes of eliciting an immune activation response that could potentially recognize and kill those cancer cells.
“What really makes my heart beat about coming into work and doing this kind of research is that it can be translational someday. I want people to reap benefit from what I study. I can be studying the most fascinating things and make an impact on the scientific side, but what makes me thrilled is that knowledge can be translated into helping out people, and I think that’s why Massey plays a great role in how I can contribute back to cancer and to pregnancy,” Lee said.
Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, where she lived for 10 years before her family immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended undergraduate school at the Miami University where she earned bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and biology. After graduating, Lee spent some time as a research technician at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when she realized research was her passion. Enrolling in a graduate program at the University of Cincinnati, she earned a Ph.D. degree in molecular and developmental biology. Lee performed a post-doctoral fellowship in transplant immunology at Emory University.
Following her fellowship, circumstances forced Lee to take a few years off from her career path, but because of a re-entry supplemental grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health and the opportunity extended to her by the VCU School of Medicine, she has successfully re-immersed herself into a scientific research career.
Her research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Clinical Investigations, American Journal of Transplantation and Journal of Immunology.
In addition, Lee is the Faculty Search Committee Chair for the VCU Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She is also an active member of the American Association of Immunology and the Society of Reproductive Investigations.
Lee is married with three children, aged 7, 9 and 11. As a family, they enjoy going to the Metro Richmond Zoo and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as well as volunteering through their church to help at the Korean Food Festival.