World-Renowned Biochemist Returns to UT Health
By Salwa Choucair
He’s the equivalent of a rock star whose music consistently sits on the top of the charts, and he’s made his way back to San Antonio with a goal to change the lives of cancer patients by developing cancer therapeutics right here.
The internationally acclaimed biochemist Patrick Sung, D.Phil., returned to UT Health San Antonio as the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry in January. In addition, he was appointed professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Structural Biology; serves as associate dean for research in the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine; and leads a new research program in genetic integrity at the Mays Cancer Center, home to UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“It did not take us long to make the decision to come back to San Antonio,” said Dr. Sung, who left UT Health in 2003 to join the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University. “The leadership here is amazing. They are supportive of the type of work we do, and I feel like we will be able to make a lot more contributions here because we have the potential and room to grow.
“The other reason for our return is, and I would not underplay this, we love San Antonio. My wife and I looked at one another, nodded our heads and said, ‘Let’s go back to San Antonio,’ and that was it. Decision made. It took us about 30 minutes to decide. We are in heaven here.”
A testament to his professionalism and acclaim, the majority of Dr. Sung’s senior research associates moved to San Antonio as well to continue their work in his laboratory. They include one research associate professor, Youngho Kwon, Ph.D.; two research assistant professors, James Daley, Ph.D., and Eloise Dray, Ph.D.; four postdoctoral fellows, Ajinkya Kawale, Ph.D., Sameer Salunkhe, Ph.D., Barbara de la Pena Avalos, Ph.D., and Arijit Dutta, Ph.D.; a research scientist, Hardeep Kaur, Ph.D.; and a laboratory manager, Stephen Holloway, Ph.D.
“These individuals are very highly qualified and experienced,” Dr. Sung explained. “It was critical and important for me to have senior associates such as these individuals join me in order for me to hit the ground running.”
That is exactly what they have done, and their work in translating their previous findings—regarding DNA repair and specifically the function that BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes play in that repair—has begun.
In fact, Dr. Sung has been on the forefront of studying DNA repair for 30 years since his graduate school days at the University of Oxford. As a trained protein and nucleic acid biochemist, his expertise is purifying delicate protein factors using techniques that were developed 50 to 60 years ago. Only a handful of biochemists from around the world are adept at this.
“We have developed a method to isolate BRCA1 and BRCA2 proteins in highly purified form. We constitute a reaction by mixing components in a test tube and then actually see a reaction occur in the tube that mimics what goes on in the cell. Now we can test mutations, actions of drugs, chemicals and so on in the test tube setting. That is why our findings have garnered quite a bit of attention around the world for that particular regard.”
While more and more researchers are studying BRCA genes, Dr. Sung’s unique look at them continues to receive attention and financial support. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded $6 million to UT Health San Antonio to support Dr. Sung’s recruitment; he received the highly competitive National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award in September which will provide $6.1 million for his research through 2026; and the Gray Foundation of New York awarded him a $3.75 million, four-year “team science” grant in July.
Dr. Sung, who was born in Hong Kong, earned a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Liverpool, and became amazed by the complexity of biology as a student there.
“As a scientist, it really is amazing to make important research findings, but while you are doing it, you don’t realize what impact it will generate because you are absorbed in the problem,” Dr. Sung said. “We did not set out to get famous. That was not our goal. It has never been our goal. We just do what we think will lead us to a mechanistic answer of an immensely complex biological problem, and it just turns out that our findings have very important clinical applications and relevance.
“At this time, we have developed the framework to continually make significant contributions in biochemistry, specifically cancer biology, but I want to translate some of those findings now into something tangible to help cancer patients in terms of management, recovery and prevention. UT Health provides me with the environment to conduct that research.
“There is incredible support for biomedical research in Texas, and I hope that Texas will act as a shining example for the rest of the nation of how a state through legislation and its citizens can really create an environment for cancer research, for neuroscience and more.”
In the Beginning
Dr. Sung started looking at the DNA repair process 30 years ago with very simple organisms including yeast. Yes, the same yeast used to make bread and beer. By studying yeast as a model system, Dr. Sung was able to take his findings, apply them and elucidate how the biological process works in humans including the actions of BRCA genes. Understanding BRCA1 and BRCA2 became his focus in the past six or seven years.
The reason for his commitment to solving the BRCA gene mystery is because BRCA1 and BRCA2 account not only for a very significant portion of breast and ovarian cancer, but now are associated with pancreatic, prostate and many other tumors as well.
“It has really occupied a very small portion of my career, but this is our focus moving forward, and we are not going to let go,” Dr. Sung said. “We want to understand the function of BRCA1 and BRCA2 in DNA repair, because they are the Holy Grail. My goal is really to figure out how they work.”
Dr. Sung believes that in the next 10 to 15 years, there will be an explosion of different types of cancer therapeutics based on the amount of research being conducted today. Pharmaceutical companies are actively monitoring this progress.
“There is a lot of interest in the DNA repair field now,” Dr. Sung said. “We are at the tip of the iceberg, and my overall goal is to develop some novel cancer therapeutics to really help patients before I retire.”
Besides his own research and goals, Dr Sung is excited about his role as the associate dean of research for the Long School of Medicine, where he is encouraging collaboration among his colleagues across departments and schools.
“Collaboration is quite important,” he said. “There is so much good science here. We must share our expertise with one another. If we collaborate, we can move mountains.”