Introducing Chi Van Dang
The new scientific director of the Ludwig Institute on his journey from Saigon to science leadership.
Chi Van Dang, a renowned cancer biologist and hematologist-oncologist, was appointed Scientific Director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in December. He joins Ludwig from the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center, which he has directed since 2011. At Penn, Chi launched a series of multidisciplinary, disease-specific Translational Centers of Excellence designed to accelerate the development of new solutions in cancer care. He is best known for research that established the first link between the cancer gene Myc—among the most frequently deregulated genes in cancers—and the aberrant metabolism of cancer cells. His studies, which explored how cancer cells alter the metabolic processing of a key sugar, explained a hallmark of cancer known as the “Warburg effect” and revived a long latent subfield of cancer biology. Therapies based on this work are today in various stages of clinical development.
Chi earned a PhD in chemistry from Georgetown University, an MD from Johns Hopkins University and then completed a fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. He then returned to Hopkins as a researcher and instructor, rising to become Vice Dean for Research and Director of the Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering before joining the Abramson Cancer Center. He was recently appointed to the Blue Ribbon panel to provide strategic guidance to former US Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. Chi is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and currently chairs the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors.
Could you tell us a little about your early life, your family, when you got here and where you studied?
I was born in Saigon, one of 10 children and the son of Vietnam’s first neurosurgeon and dean of the University of Saigon’s School of Medicine. I was very privileged and fortunate to have a nurturing, loving and academically enthused family. When I was 12, the Vietnam War was intensifying and my parents sent my brother Chuc and me to live with an American family in Flint, Michigan, with whom they had forged a deep friendship. In our new home in America, we developed many strong relationships that have lasted to the present. We were reunited with our family in 1975, when my remaining family members, after having endured the refugee camps, immigrated to the US and settled in California. I attended the University of Michigan for my undergraduate degree, Georgetown University for a doctoral degree in chemistry, and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for my medical degree. After my internship and residency in medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I completed a fellowship in hematology-oncology at the Cancer Research Institute of the University of California at San Francisco. In 1987, I was appointed assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, where I remained until joining Penn.
You initially got a Ph.D. in chemistry. What prompted you to switch to medicine?
A medical degree was always my goal, but I was considered stateless since I carried a passport from the Republic of South Vietnam, which ceased to exist as of April 1975 at the time when I applied to medical school. Despite my undergraduate record (highest honors), none were willing to admit me except Georgetown University, contingent on a combined chemistry-medical graduate training.
Did your depth of knowledge in chemistry give you any special insight into the research you subsequently began in the biomedical sciences?
Definitely. Chemistry provides the basic principles for biochemistry and biology and is an invaluable science that plays a critical role in the drug development process. It has helped me a lot in terms of the kind of work we’ve been doing over the past couple of decades, focusing not only on what happens in cancer biology but also understanding the mechanisms that contribute to disease. Chemistry explains how the world around us works, which is a philosophy that has always driven my own research—to understand how things work not just what they look like.
What leadership advice would you would give to the next generation?
My philosophy is that when you’re good to people, you’re paid back much more than what you put in. It really comes down to the old adage—you reap what you sow—your deeds, good or bad, will repay you in kind. Trust builds respect and loyalty and is essential in every organization. You shouldn’t trust people blindly, but I believe it’s always better to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Can you name a person who has had a significant impact on you as a leader?
I have had many mentors and teachers and learned from each one of them starting with my high school biology teacher and on to my thesis advisor at the University of Michigan, who taught me a lot about how to think about science. I would have to single out Edward Miller, who was the former dean at the Johns Hopkins Medical School under whom I served as Vice Dean for Research. Ed definitely had a pivotal influence on my thinking and my managerial style. He was by far one of the smartest people I have ever dealt with and his people skills were unparalleled. He was an effective leader, in that he recognized that people are the single most important part of the equation in the success of an organization. He had a big heart and truly cared about people as individuals.
How do you foster an environment that encourages scientists to think big?
Part of my job at Ludwig will be to deploy resources, which is an important component of getting people to think big. I often find that junior faculty members don’t want to take a risk on something that might not yield positive results because it might hinder their career advancement so I would encourage them to spend 70-80 percent of their time on things they’re comfortable with and sure of. The other 20-30 percent should be spent on taking some risks. It might not yield much but it’s an opportunity to think big, which could ultimately lead to challenging and maybe even changing accepted paradigms. I would also suggest to senior scientists who are established and world famous to take risks. They’ve reached the pinnacle of their academic careers and are now in a unique position to take risks, think big and make breakthroughs. They can be bold and step out of the box to ask new questions and find new answers that can help change the world, and perhaps make the world a better place. Teamwork is another way to think big because a lot of breakthroughs require teams rather than individuals. Today, with the advances in technology and explosion of information, it would be tough for a single person to contribute all the necessary expertise to solve increasingly complex problems.
What excites you most about the future trajectory of your research?
Finding drugs that are disadvantageous to the cancer cell but at the same time advantageous for the immune cell. To do this we really need to better understand how metabolic pathways are regulated in immune cells, how specific metabolic programs alter immune function and how immunity may in turn influence metabolism. This would be the Holy Grail and one that requires a lot of basic and animal work to develop into models. Over the past 10 years, I have consulted with a number of pharmaceutical companies that are currently developing drugs that could selectively disrupt key metabolic pathways for cancer cell survival and growth. I’m really excited about launching my Ludwig activities in July, as we have some new ideas for drug development that could have significant therapeutic potential.
Are there any natural connections between your studies and Ludwig research?
Definitely. We will be undertaking local CRISPR/Cas 9 screening and harnessing its power for use across the drug discovery platform to identify new targets and hopefully, down the line, new drugs. We’ll need to prove them in biological models once we’ve validated them, and that will probably take a couple of years. The Small Molecule Discovery group at the San Diego Branch will be instrumental in this area, as it is quite adept at creating small molecules that could act like drugs and assessing whether they might be worth turning into treatments. Our work also intersects with immunity and anti-cancer immunology, so this is a natural connection to the work at Oxford and Lausanne. If we get really lucky we’ll find new drugs that will hopefully end up in some clinical trial in Lausanne, among other places.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when creating the Translational Centers of Excellence at Penn?
The recognition that no single organization can excel in all areas. We had experts from across the Penn community who came together to identify and decide which projects to support that would ultimately become flagship programs. It was a very rigorous application process—every application had to be competitive and underwent an outside peer review. Only four centers were approved on the first round. As I transition out, my recommendation is to continue to define the areas of strength and invest in them but without ignoring opportunities in areas where Penn might need to strengthen, and to find ways to initiate efforts to both build and leverage those shortcomings to achieve greater success.
Is the approach you took there transferrable to Ludwig?
Ludwig is different because it’s comprised of an international network of scientists with specific areas of expertise. Within this framework, you can draw on each group’s expertise to forge collaborations aimed at solving specific challenges and ultimately translating them into therapies. My goal would be to grow through connectivity by focusing on each site’s strengths and capabilities and connecting investigators at different sites through their complementary strengths.
In your opinion, are there best practices for advancing promising discoveries into the translational pipeline?
I have used the Stand Up To Cancer (SUTC) research model for the translational opportunities here at Penn. I was part of one of the initial teams to go after pancreatic cancer and saw first-hand how a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, team-oriented approach accelerated the pace of groundbreaking translational research by identifying and pursuing ideas that other agencies probably wouldn’t support. We addressed bold questions—not all of which panned out. Ultimately a series of clinical trials to test different therapies resulted in expedited FDA approval of a combination of Abraxane and Gemcitabine, which led to a new standard of care for pancreatic cancer patients.
What do you want most to be remembered for?
I wish to be remembered first and foremost as a teacher and compassionate healer. In addition to any contributions I’ve made to science, I’d like to be remembered for my deeds.