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USC Stem Cell scientist Min Yu brainstorms new ways to beat breast cancer

Min Yu (Photo by Chris Shinn)
Min Yu (Photo by Chris Shinn)

For USC cancer researcher Min Yu, starting her lab meant building a culture of like-minded scientists. When she first joined the university as an assistant professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine in 2014, she assembled a team that shared her excitement about scientific ideas.

“The best thing that I have done is to get a group of critical, open-minded, excited, motivated people in the lab,” said Yu, who was awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine in December 2021. “We built a lab culture of freely exchanging ideas, having brainstorming sessions to talk about exciting questions that haven’t been answered, and being nice about helping each other. I’m really happy that we built that lab culture from the very beginning.”

Yu’s path to running a cancer research lab started in northeast China’s Shandong Province in the coastal city of Qingdao, where she grew up. She was originally interested in pursuing computer science, but her mother persuaded her to follow in her footsteps and become a physician.

Yu earned her MD at Shandong Medical University and her master’s degree in neurology at Peking University Health Science Center. Her research interests shifted to breast cancer while she was pursuing her PhD at SUNY Stony Brook University/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the laboratory of Senthil Muthuswamy. She began studying circulating tumor cells or CTCs, which enter the bloodstream and metastasize, while doing her postdoctoral training at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School in the lab of Daniel A. Haber. Two landmark papers pioneering approaches to isolate and characterize mammary tumor-derived CTCs published by Yu in 2013 and 2014 have garnered over 3,000 citations.

While she was a postdoc studying how CTCs metastasize, her father passed away from liver cancer. This further strengthened her resolve to translate scientific discoveries into patient treatments.

Great risks, greater rewards

Yu was recruited as a faculty member to the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, and to the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, where her lab is located. It’s a perfect set-up to foster clinically-relevant cancer research.

Yu is embedded in a vibrant community of stem cell and cancer scientists, while being adjacent to a hospital where she can easily collaborate with oncologists to obtain patient blood samples. She uses these patient blood samples to filter out rare circulating tumor cells, grow and expand them in the lab, and study how they contribute to metastasis—the leading cause of cancer-related death.

When Yu first started her lab, she allowed herself to be pulled in many different research directions.

“When one of my students had an exciting idea, I said, ‘That’s cool. Let’s do it!’ Some of these were very risky projects, and we were competing with a lot of big labs with many more resources and much more experience than us,” she said. “So those are the lessons you learn over time: where to best focus and invest your effort.”

To support her lab’s many projects, Yu secured two key grants in 2015. The first was the Pew-Stewart scholarship for early-career cancer researchers. The second was the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which supports highly creative early-career scientists pursuing innovative approaches to solving significant health problems. Funded by the NIH Common Fund, the award is part of the agency’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program.

Within a few years, several of the Yu Lab’s high-risk projects began reaping the hoped-for rewards.

One of Yu’s first postdoctoral fellows, Oihana Iriondo, made discoveries about how the tumor environment influences breast cancer cells and their ability to evade the body’s immune system and form metastases. This work established one of the lab’s three main research focuses, and resulted in a 2018 publication in Nature Communications about a potential approach for reducing lung metastases in the most deadly type of breast cancer—triple-negative breast cancer.

The following year, postdoc Remi Klotz published a major paper in Cancer Discovery, detailing features that predispose certain breast cancer cells to metastasize to the brain. Cancer cells with these features have an enhanced ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and evade the body’s immune defenses.

Building on this discovery, Yu began collaborating with Yong (Tiger) Zhang from the USC School of Pharmacy to develop a new treatment for patients with cancer that is likely to metastasize to the brain. To advance this new treatment towards clinical trials, Yu also launched a startup called CanTraCer Biosciences.

“Cancer patients are living longer, so many patients are starting to show up with brain metastasis,” said Yu. “Right now, there are not many treatment options, and the prognosis is really bad. If you don’t treat them, their average survival is just a few months. If you heavily treat them, there are lots of toxicities, and still the median survival is only a year. So that’s an area I’m going to work on a lot more.”

A third major focus of her lab evolved from the work of postdoc Mohamed Saleh, who is studying the features that determine why some circulating tumor cells metastasize, while others remain dormant.

“Now after expanding in multiple directions, I know what my real interests are for research topics,” said Yu. “I’m going to have two or three people work on different aspects but related to major areas that I’m really interested in, so they will have a small community.”

In addition to mentoring her lab members, Yu also enjoys teaching the master’s program course SCRM 515 Bringing Stem Cells to the Clinic, as well as several PhD courses in USC’s Programs in Biomedical and Biological Sciences.

Now that Yu has been promoted to an associate professor with tenure, she is also serving on the faculty mentorship committee for Giorgia Quadrato and on the grant writing committee for Unmesh Jadhav, who are both assistant professors of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Yu is also on the grant writing committee for Evanthia Roussos Torres, an assistant professor of medicine.

“I can share the mistakes that I made and the lessons I learned,” said Yu, “so that’s been nice.”

For a lark

Outside the lab, Yu and her husband are parents to their son Nathan, who is in kindergarten. To maintain a healthy work-life balance, Yu experimented with different approaches, before finding one that worked.

“My schedule is I wake up at 4 o’clock every day, and I do some work, or go running before my son Nathan gets up,” she said. “And then I come back and get breakfast and school ready. The good thing about it is if I travel to the East Coast, I’m already on East Coast time.”

Even though it would be nice to sleep once in a while, the tradeoff is well worth it for Yu.

“I feel what motivates me the most is to see the excitement of the people in the lab when they get a good result, and when they find out their hypothesis is actually true,” she said. “It’s a thrill—scientific discovery. You are the first person to find this phenomenon. You actually know how things work.”