Oncology Researcher Catherine J. Wu, MD, Always Knew She Wanted to Be a Doctor

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Catherine J. Wu, MD, Professor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was reared in a medical environment, which shaped her career path as a physician-scientist. “Both of my parents are physicians and were trained in internal medicine. Medicine was always part of my life as I grew up, and it seemed like an exciting and worthy career in an ever-changing environment. And I never encountered one thing that made me question that decision,” said Dr. Wu.

Catherine J. Wu, MD

Early Introduction to the Lab

DR. WU was born in New York City, but when she was still an infant, her parents moved to Setauket, a small town on the North Shore of Long Island. After graduating from Ward Melville High School, Dr. Wu attended Harvard College, where she majored in biochemistry.

“I think the most meaningful academic experience during my undergraduate studies was my senior research thesis on memory B lymphocytes in mice. That’s when I discovered my love for research, which allows one the intellectual freedom to pursue scientific challenges. It was also my introduction to hematology and immunology,” Dr. Wu shared.

Broadening Her Horizons

FOLLOWING HARVARD, Dr. Wu was accepted to the Stanford University School of Medicine; however, an opportunity delayed her entry. “I actually took a year off because I had a scholarship to study in France at the Faculty of Medicine at the Université in Nice. It was a great experience; like most people who went from high school to college, I was still pretty immature in that I’d lived in a very structured setting.”

“Medicine seemed like an exciting and worthy career in an ever‑changing environment. And I never encountered one thing that made me question that decision.”
— Catherine J. Wu, MD

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She continued: “In retrospect, that experience formed much of my later career. My current work is highly collaborative among team members with diverse and complementary skills. Meeting so many people from different countries and cultures taught me how to listen and closely observe human interactions.”

A Valuable Mentor

WHEN DR. WU returned from her year abroad, she entered Stanford, already primed for research in immunology. “Stanford has a great immunology department, and I joined a lab within my first 6 months working with a new faculty member, Carol Clayberger, PhD, in the Cardiovascular Transplant Division. She was a terrific mentor and urged me to get a 1-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. My knowledge of how to conduct research expanded as well as my interest in the human immune system.”

During this growth period, Dr. Wu also decided to pursue internal medicine and the idea of treating the patient as a whole organism instead of focusing on a specific organ system. “I was very interested in the immune system’s capability to fight disease and at the time was considering specializing in infectious disease or rheumatology. I hadn’t given oncology a serious consideration until I began my residency. I was rotating on the bone marrow transplant service and became fascinated by the cutting-edge science underlying the clinical experiences. But it was seeing patients with leukemia being cured that won me over. I wanted to understand the immunologic basis for this phenomenon,” said Dr. Wu. “That was the tipping point for my decision to pursue hematology/oncology.”

After attaining her medical degree from Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. Wu began her training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Then she did a fellowship in medical oncology and hematology at Dana-Farber/Partners CancerCare.

Research Interests

DR. WU’S postdoctoral work was centered on understanding the graft-vs-leukemia responses arising in patients who relapsed after stem cell transplantation. “I was very interested in trying to discover the root causes driving that response. If you pursue that line of inquiry, you also think about the immunogenic determinants of the response. And it is not too far of a leap to think that if leukemia cells have mutations, they might generate amino acid changes that are immunogenic as well,” she explained.

“Over the next 5 years, the way we will evaluate the status of our patients will evolve tremendously, specifically in imaging and blood tests.”
— Catherine J. Wu, MD

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In 2000, she joined the Dana-Farber faculty and began her independent research program in 2005. “I spent a good portion of my early work in antigen discovery. When next-generation sequencing became available around 2008, we began thinking that it might be a rational way to begin to identify those mutations. And if we could characterize tumors and their somatic mutations, maybe we could develop targets for immunotherapies,” said Dr. Wu.

“I’m a physician-scientist, so for the majority of my time at Dana-Farber, I’ve balanced my time between seeing patients and running a research laboratory program. However, over the past couple of years, that mix has substantially shifted to more lab over clinical. I’m interested in taking knowledge from the clinic and applying it to what we do on the bench. And vice versa,” she commented.

Dr. Wu noted that the interplay between clinic and bench has resulted in investigator-initiated clinical trials. “Once we have a hypothesis, we can then use the specimens we collect from our patients to conduct experiments that help us understand mechanistically what happened in vivo in those patients in association with their response,” said Dr. Wu.

Multiple Duties

ASKED ABOUT a typical day, Dr. Wu said: “I drop my kids off at school in the morning and after arriving at my office, I might spend an hour or so working on a grant. Then we’ll have a lab meeting, which includes graduate students and post-docs. I might have some administrative work and may then also attend seminars. Then I might travel across the river and meet for an hour or so with my colleagues at the Broad Institute, reviewing data and brainstorming new experiments. And at the end of a very busy day, I’ll probably close the door to my office and go over some budgets.”

What are the most promising new areas of opportunity: “I see an opportunity in the area of diagnostics. Over the next 5 years, the way we will evaluate the status of our patients will evolve tremendously, specifically in imaging and blood tests; not only will they tell us about the characteristics of the tumor cells, but also about the immune microenvironment. This will ultimately determine what is the best treatment path for each patient. Moreover, this added specificity will allow us to create targeted combination therapies of emerging agents, which will have the potential to impact the long-term outcomes of our patients with cancer. It’s truly an exciting time in oncology research and treatment.”

How does a super-busy oncology leader decompress? “I have three kids, 13, 15, and 17, so that keeps me pretty busy. Our family spends a lot of our free time together, which, to me, is the best way in the world to put everything that goes with a demanding career into perspective.”

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Wu is a consultant/advisor to, has stock and other ownership interests in, and has patents/royalties/other intellectual property with Neon Therapeutics.