Giving Hope Back to Cancer Patients

New anti-cancer drugs provide personalized medicine to cancer patients

After operating upon numerous cancer patients, hoping to revive their health and give peace to their friends and families, Dr. Yusuke Nakamura, of the University of Chicago, firmly believes in the necessity of working towards curative measures for the many affected by cancer globally each year. With his patients at the forefront of his motivation, Dr. Nakamura still recalls significant moments with his patients. For instance, one woman who was suffering with gastric tumors. She had been very patient, but one day she cried and asked him to "please remove the mass in my abdomen." There was no way to remove the tumors that disseminated in her abdomen and Dr. Nakamura found he was at a loss for any words of consolation and nearly cried. She was just 27 years old when she died. When he declared her death, he too was 27.  With even greater motivation, he started studying genetics to better understand cancer, particularly hereditary cancers. Today he is a world-renowned researcher and one of the pioneers of applying genetic variations and genomics to the medical field, his previous work has already made it possible to map and clone genes responsible for hereditary diseases as well as genes involved in cancer. When his own mother developed colon cancer in 1999, Dr. Nakamura was very strongly motivated to work towards developing an anti-cancer drug in addition to his basic cancer research. Through her battle with cancer, Dr. Nakamura explains, "I re-realized the importance to provide hope to cancer patients and their family members." Today, his research tries to provide hope to cancer patients as he and his team develop new anti-cancer drugs. Furthermore, his work attempts to provide personalized medicine that can predict the efficacy and adverse reactions thereby allowing patients to have the most appropriate treatment while improving their quality of life.

Perhaps most striking is Dr. Nakamura's dedication to the individuals he is serving rather than simply the science behind his profession. His rigorous research is truly guided by the many lives it will impact. With a strong team of scientists, Dr. Nakamura works hard for cancer patients all over the globe. In addition, Dr. Nakamura has used his expertise to work towards the good of his home country of Japan. Having served within the Japanese cabinet he has worked towards the health and wellbeing of the Japanese community. In addition, after the devastating tsunami of 2011, Dr. Nakamura worked hard to develop a plan to well manage thousands of people that had lost their family members, friends, and even houses. Despite his efforts, the Japanese government was not receptive to his proposals. Nevertheless, Dr. Nakamura has continued to apply his vision for a healthier community by revitalizing the hope of families dealing with illness, and especially for those dealing with exceptional hardship. Therefore, his subsequent move to the the University of Chicago has supported his strong desire to develop a drug to cure cancer.

Current research includes:

  • Cancer Specific Enzymes: Dr. Nakamura is working to molecularly characterize cancer specific enzymes, particularly MELK (maternal embryonic leucine zipper kinase) that is involved in maintenance of cancer stem cells and various methyltransferases that modify histone codes as well as other cancer-related molecules. Using such information, he and his team have been screening molecular targeted drugs in collaboration with companies.

  • Genomic Sequencing: Dr. Nakamura is sequencing 400 cancer-related genes. He and his team are now sequencing lung, bladder, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers to discover new drug-target molecules and apply the somatic mutations to personalized treatment of cancer patients. 

  • Immune Response: Dr. Nakamura is characterizing the immune response in patients who were treated with cancer peptide vaccines or those who developed GVHD (Graft-versus-host disease) after bone marrow transplantation through the high-throughput TCR sequences (immunogenomics or immunopharmacogenomics).

  • Genetic Variants: Dr. Nakamura is identifying the genetic variants that are related to efficacy or adverse reactions of various drugs. Therefore, he hopes to achieve the ultimate goal of developing novel molecular-targeted anti-cancer drugs and establishment of personalized treatment of cancer by which patients would be treated with the effective drug(s) with a minimum risk of adverse reactions.

Bio

After graduating from medical school, Dr. Nakamura worked as a surgeon and operated on cancer patients. Although he and his team did their best, half of the patients returned to the hospital because of recurrence of cancer and then died. Some of them were inoperable and died soon without any effective treatments. Dr. Nakamura recalls with sadness the many patients he was unable to help regain health. For example, one patient passed away leaving his wife and two small children. When he came to the hospital, he had an obstruction of his intestine due to an advanced colon cancer and metastatic liver tumor. When Dr. Nakamura told his patient he could go home to stay with his family, his patient smiled but soon after began to cry saying to Dr. Nakamura, "I thought that I could not return to my family until I die." A few months later, he closed his life. Through the treatment of cancer patients, Dr. Nakamura had many questions: what causes cancer? Why does cancer progress so fast in some patients and slowly in others? Why do most of the patients show no benefit from anti-cancer treatment? and Why do some patients show very severe side effects from treatment? To address such concerns, he started to learn genetics and geonomics.

Website: https://nakamuralab.uchicago.edu/page/people-nakamura-lab

Awards

Honorary Citizenship, The State of Maryland, USA, 1991

Princess Takamatsu Cancer Research Award, 1992

Keio Medical Science Prize, 2000

The Medal with a Purple Ribbon (for contributions to education and culture), 2004

Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researcher, 2014