behind The Bench

The thrill of discovery drives cancer researcher

Many scientists are motivated by a desire to contribute toward a larger goal — such as finding the cure for a disease.

Cancer researcher David Mu, PhD, is excited when his laboratory discoveries help patients. But for him, it all starts with a yearning for new knowledge — just for the sake of it.

“A lot of science has to be driven by intrinsic curiosity,” says Dr. Mu, Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology and a researcher in the Leroy T. Canoles Jr. Cancer Research Center at EVMS. “There’s nothing wrong in trying to cure diseases, but if every single scientific move was based on curing a disease or had a practical value, then we would not have the science we have now.”

That approach has proven to be a winning formula for Dr. Mu.

For instance, his research helped show that a medication commonly found in bathroom medicine cabinets could be a powerful treatment for certain types of lung cancer.

The revelation grew out of Dr. Mu’s curiosity about lung cancer cells that contain high concentrations of a mutated form of a gene known as TTF1. He discovered that the mutated gene is more than just a red flag for cancer — it supports the cancer cells by helping them create cholesterol, an essential product for all cells.

Dr. Mu demonstrated that statin — a class of drugs used by millions to control their cholesterol levels — can similarly help control certain cancer cells.

It was only after Dr. Mu made progress in understanding the gene’s role that he saw the potential for treatment and was able to secure funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“My experience has been that just like in life, it’s hard to have an endpoint,” says Dr. Mu, a Taiwan native whose career, like his research, evolved over time.

As Chair of the EVMS Research Committee, Dr. Mu takes an active role in the development and promotion of research campus-wide. In addition to his work with TTF1, his other chief research interest is striving to understand how cells communicate. As usual, there is no pre-determined idea for what to do with that knowledge.

“Sometimes you do something not because you have a practical endpoint in mind,” he says. “You do it just because you’re curious.”