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Building mathematical models to better understand genetic drivers of cancer

Nov 18, 2019


Mathematics isn’t usually what comes to mind when considering the disciplines involved in a cure for cancer, but Inho “Richard” Joh, Ph.D., intends to make a career out of it.

“One of the aspects of cancer biology that is severely behind other biological disciplines is in the use of mathematical modeling,” Joh said. “This is in part due to heterogeneity of tumor cells within the same tumor, between tumors and between tissues.”

Joh, who joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program in 2019, will embrace a quantitative modeling approach, using mathematical equations to understand large sets of data, to more effectively comprehend how the three-dimensional organization of the genome is regulated in various tumors and tissues with the goal of uncovering molecular pathways that can be targeted with novel cancer therapies.

“I’m trying to understand if the up- or down-regulation of specific genetic pathways is common in different cancer patients and potentially contributes to disease progression,” said Joh, whose research is currently focused on breast and colon cancer. “And if those genetic responses are common, then how can we use those data patterns to improve patient outcomes?”

Inspired by his grandmother’s death from ovarian cancer, Joh is also interested in studying how the microenvironment – the biological location surrounding the tumor – is responsible for disease growth.

“I am equipped to investigate the changes in the extracellular environment of tumors and will study how these changes are transferred at a molecular level and potentially contribute to cancer progression,” said Joh, who is also an assistant professor of physics at the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. “This approach might yield new therapeutic interventions to modulate tumor aggressiveness and enhance the scientific understanding of how heterogeneity arises within a tumor.”

Joh also hopes to conduct further research revolving around cellular quiescence, when cells stop dividing and lie undetected in the body but pose a significant threat for relapse even after tumor clearance from successful treatment. Using a species of yeast called fission yeast, he will investigate the molecular mechanisms that allow for cells to enter into a state of quiescence.

He was drawn to VCU because of the environmental balance between physical and medical sciences and the availability to collaborate with researchers across disciplines.

Joh grew up in Seoul, South Korea, where he graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in physics and mathematics. He then moved to Atlanta where he earned a Ph.D. in physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology while investigating environmentally transmitted infectious diseases using mathematical models. At this point, Joh started to become more interested in gene regulation across chromosomes and completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and epigenetics/cancer biology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He has been published in nine peer-reviewed journal publications including the American Journal of Epidemiology, Molecular Cell and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Physical Society and American Society for Microbiology.

Joh lives with his wife and daughter in Moseley, Virginia, and enjoys playing classical guitar, mountain biking and rock climbing.

Written by: Blake Belden

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