The Accelerating Excellence In Translational Science (AXIS)Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science

Dr. Yanyuan Wu

The molecular pathology of breast cancer is daunting in its complexity, yet we must come to understand it if we are to make progress providing better treatments and prevention. Dr. Yanyuan Wu is one researcher who has not been afraid to approach this complexity and help untangle it. She has even added another level of detail to her analysis: a focus on the mechanisms of breast cancer in African Americans and Latinas. Dr. Wu notes, “These research projects aim to reduce health disparities in minority populations.”

In 2003, Dr. Wu began her appointment as Assistant Professor in the Division of Cancer Research and Training and the Department of Internal Medicine at both CDU and the UCLA School of Medicine. Recently, she was promoted to Associate Professor. She obtained her M.D. from the Capital Medical Institute in Beijing, China, her country of origin. After obtaining post-graduate work in statistics, she became a post-doc fellow in the Molecular Oncology Program at CDU and trained in the laboratory of Dr. Vadgama, her mentor. Later she went on to earn her M.S. in clinical research from CDU in 2007. Among her many other professional activities and accomplishments, Dr. Wu is a member of both the American Association for Cancer Research and the Molecular Epidemiology Group, as well as a reviewer for the Journal of Tumor Biology. In 2012 she was also given a Minority-Serving Institution Faculty Scholar in Cancer Research Award by the American Association for Cancer Research.

Dr. Wu’s research on HER2 integrates clinical translational and basic research. This oncoprotein is overexpressed in certain forms of breast cancer. During her postdoctoral training, she conducted translational research with Dr.Vadgama and identified the prognostic value of plasma HER-2/neu in African American and Hispanic women with breast cancer. Later, under Cancer Partnership grant funding by the National Institute of Health and the National Cancer Institute, she further identified the importance of activation of the signaling molecule Akt in breast cancer. In breast cancer cells that overexpress HER2, the activation of Akt contributes to failure to respond to trastuzumab (herceptin). She found that African American and Latina women with HER2 overexpressing breast cancer are more likely to have activated Akt in their tumor tissues. The “Clinical significance of Akt and HER2/neu overexpression in African American and Latina women with breast cancer” was published in Breast Cancer Res. (2008), where it was recognized by the journal as one of the highest accessed papers. The outcome of her studies on HER2 has resulted in a significant volume of peer-reviewed publications and multiple studies published in high impact journals.

Recently she and her team in the Division of Cancer Research and Training published their new paper: “Expression of Wnt3 activates Wnt/ß-catenin pathway and promotes EMT-like phenotype in trastuzumab-resistant HER2-overexpressing breast cancer cells.” This pathway could prove an important mechanism leading to trastuzumab resistance in HER2-overexpressing breast cancer cells. Targeting Wnt3 might help overcome trastuzumab resistance and thus benefit breast cancer patients with HER2-overexpressing tumors. Dr. Wu is also working to identify cluster genes that could connect different pathways and contribute to tumor progression and resistance to trastuzumab in HER2 overexpressing breast cancer.

Another important component of Dr. Wu’s work is mentoring and teaching undergraduates, doctoral and medical students, residents, and postdoctoral fellows. She believes it is important to challenge students with novel approaches to solving scientific questions, in addition to providing them with background in routine fundamental skills. Among her other mentorship activities, she has provided guidance and training for undergraduate students as part of the Cancer Research and Training Summer Research Program.

Dr. Wu speaks highly of the strong influence of her scientific and career development mentor, Dr. Vadgama. She remarks of her time at CDU: “Being on faculty at CDU presented me with the opportunity to engage in scientific studies that are focused on improving disease outcomes in patients from underserved communities in south central Los Angeles. I consider this an invaluable experience that gives me better understanding of the cultural, ethnic, economic aspects influencing the patient outcomes.”