Hao Nguyen, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in residence in UCSF’s Urologic Oncology Department, has won a prestigious “Rising Stars in Urology Research Award" from the Urology Care Foundation. The award provides supplemental salary support to physician-scientists who have “shown significant promise” by receiving grants from federal and other funding sources. The goal of the award is to allow the physicians to take time away from their clinical practices to devote to their research.
Nguyen, 41, is studying stress pathways in prostate cancer cells. His own path from war-torn Vietnam to one of the best teaching hospitals was not easy. When he was ten years old, his mother, father, and five siblings traveled from Vietnam to Thailand. Part of a wave of refugees who fled Vietnam between 1978 and 1995, Nguyen’s family had saved for years to get out of a country where they had almost no hope of succeeding. Nguyen’s father had been in the South Vietnamese army and was imprisoned in a “re-education camp” after the Vietnam War ended. Once released, he had few prospects and ended up farming. His mother had been a nurse, but after the war she resorted to selling clothing in the markets to help support her family.
In 1988, the Nguyens had enough money to travel by boat to Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp for a year. From there they traveled to the Philippines, where they stayed in a processing center designed to help refugees learn English and become familiar with American culture. Six months later, they arrived in East San Jose, where Hao’s father eventually found work in a restaurant, and his mother found work in a nail salon.
“The only way out is education”
All six siblings went through the San Jose public school system. And then all six children went to UC Berkeley. Hao and his brother Hung both went on to medical school. Hao went on to get his medical degree at Boston University, completed his surgical training at UC Davis, and is now an assistant professor in residence in the Urologic Oncology Department at UCSF. Hung received his medical degree from UC Davis and is now a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist at UCSF.
Two of Nguyen’s sisters attended the UCSF School of Pharmacy; one is a director of pharmacy at Hills’ physician HMO, and other is Chief Operating Officer at C-TAC Innovations. A third sister received her DDS at Boston University and now works in Portland. The youngest brother did his undergraduate work at UC and is now working for a genetic testing startup in Mission Bay.
“The reason our family came to America was for education,” Nguyen, 41, says now. “We paid a very steep price to get that. We left everyone behind, because my parents knew the only way out of poverty was through education. There is no way that we could have gone to college in Vietnam. We were traitors, second-class citizens. But here in the United States there is so much opportunity. You just have to work hard and it is there for you, that chance of achieving the American dream, no matter who you are.”
The hope for new cancer therapies
Nguyen’s will use his Rising Star award to continue his research on the ways that cancer cells are able to survive cancer treatments via a mechanism known as the stress response. Normally cell proteins are folded in a certain shape, and any proteins that aren’t folded properly are processed through the endoplasmic reticulum. When cells get stressed, the number of misfolded proteins often increases. To adapt (and avoid dying), the cells slow down protein synthesis so they can process the over-abundance of the misshapen proteins. This is called the “unfolded protein response” (UPR).
Cancer cells, in particular, trigger the UPR when stressed by acquisition of oncogenic lesions, oxygen deficiency or nutrient starvation as they proliferate or when they are targeted by chemo or radiologic therapy. It’s an adaptive survival mechanism, one in which “the cancer cells are finding ways to outsmart the therapy,” Nguyen says.
In his research, Nguyen is studying the UPR pathway in mice implanted with prostate cancer derived from patients who had surgery for high risk cancer. His goal? To see if a targeted therapy can disrupt that pathway. “It’s like the cancer cell is on a highway and it activates a brake (UPR) to avoid dying,” he explains. “We want to find a way to take away that brake so the cell eventually dies.”
If successful, Nguyen’s project could result in an entirely new way of targeting prostate cancer, one that outsmarts the very mechanism by which the cells try to outsmart the therapeutic agents targeting them. “In addition, by using the most relevant in-vivo model to recapitulate the diversity and heterogeneity of prostate cancer, the hope is these studies will uncover novel function biomarkers for therapeutic response for future human patient clinical trials,” Nguyen says.
Notes Peter R. Carroll, MD, MPH, and Chair of UCSF’s Department of Urology, “The hard work and unfailing resolve of Dr. Nguyen and his family got him to UCSF. His professionalism and compassion for his patients is what we are about as a department. He is a great and unique addition who is destined to contribute in so many ways here at UCSF. We’re lucky to have him as part of our team.”