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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

From Lacrosse Player to Lab Standout

Eric Dang ’10

Photos: Willkirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

When a landmark new cancer study from Johns Hopkins appeared in the journal Science last August, it included Eric Dang as third author. Dang is not a professor, a postdoctoral fellow, or even a graduate student at the university. He's an undergraduate public health major.

Dang, 22, carried out the work in the lab of Drew Pardoll, Abeloff Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Dang may have hit a homerun in his first research at-bat, but the Baltimore native is not resting on his laurels. For an encore, he is poised to serve as lead author on another study to be published later this year.

Pardoll calls Dang a research star in the making.

"Eric is really a gifted and unique individual. He is an extremely creative thinker who has introduced a lot of great ideas to the lab," says Pardoll, who nominated Dang for the USA Today All-USA Academic Team (whose members will be announced later this spring.) "I have had some great undergraduates in my lab before, but nobody compares to him. Right now he's operating at the level of a postdoctoral fellow."

For the study in Science, Dang and his colleagues wanted to examine the workings of the gene Foxp3, the main transcription factor that programs the development and function of regulatory T-cells, or Tregs for short.

Tregs act as the police of the human immune system. They effectively cordon off healthy, normal tissues and tell the body's built-in defense system they're off-limits.

The design works swimmingly, until you throw in a cancerous tumor. The problem: The body doesn't recognize the malignant growth as a foreign invader and it's allowed to grow.

The research team found that a protein termed Eos is specifically expressed in regulatory T-cells and bonds with Foxp3, which was not previously known. They next observed that Eos regulates the expression of a number of genes in the Tregs. Knockdown Eos and the lymphocytes lose their suppressive ability and gain the ability to attack. Effectively, Dang and team found a trigger to alter the lymphocyte's behavior.

In terms of cancer treatment, the discovery opens the door to drugs that target Eos to stop the regulatory T-cells from blocking the immune response. The team also believes that one could, conversely, hyperactivate Eos in the case of an autoimmune disease, such as Type 1 diabetes.

For his next act, Dang began to examine the balance between Tregs and Th17 cells in the body. Dang discovered that a molecule, termed hypoxia inducible factor-1, or HIF-1, plays a significant role in Treg development. Too much HIF-1 can produce Th17 cells, which have been implicated in causing autoimmunity. The findings, while still very preliminary, suggest that drugs could be used to inhibit HIF-1 and tip the balance back toward Tregs, stopping the autoimmunity response.

Dang, who is currently completing his honors thesis in public health, began his work in Pardoll's lab in fall 2007. Prior to that, you were more likely to find him on Homewood Field. He came to Johns Hopkins to play lacrosse and earned a spot on the varsity team, but during his sophomore year his focus began to drift to science.

"I started taking biology courses, and I really got into it," says Dang. "[Leaving the lacrosse team] was a hard decision, but I wanted to work in a lab and devote my time to that."

Dang, who is the son of Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, first learned how to run gels and take care of cell cultures, but quickly shed his research training wheels and moved on to experiments. Pardoll likened the young scientist's progress to going from a car engine to that of a F-16 jet.

Despite being in the lab five days a week, Dang makes time for community service. He currently serves as president of Students Taking a New Direction, or STAND, which pairs mentors with students from juvenile detention centers in Baltimore. In addition to mentoring, Dang has designed some class activities for the program, including a science day and employment training.

After graduating in May, Dang plans to work in an immunology lab in England and then enter medical school.

 

Related Link

Undergraduate Program in Public Health

 

 

Pardoll and Dang in lab

Working in the lab of Hopkins oncology researcher Drew Pardoll, Eric Dang ’10 has made some noteworthy scientific advances. “He’s operating at the level of a postdoctoral fellow,” says Pardoll.