2012 Annual Report: Meet Medical Oncologist Ping Chi

Pictured: Chi Ping
Ping Chi, MD, PhD

When I began looking for a place to start my career, I was drawn to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program (HOPP) because I believed it would give me sufficient time to focus on my lab research without having to give up caring for patients.

HOPP was founded to bring together a diverse group of physician-scientists who could advance scientific knowledge while moving laboratory discoveries more rapidly into the clinic.

HOPP researchers tend to ask questions about the molecular causes of cancer. And although we work primarily in the lab, we meet regularly with our physician colleagues to discuss new cases, so we never lose sight of the practical and clinical considerations that go in to making decisions about patient care.

As a clinician, I see patients with melanoma and many different types of sarcomas. (Sarcomas are a diverse group of tumors that arise in soft tissues such as muscle, fat, and cartilage, and in bones.)

I am looking at genetic changes such as mutations, which affect the sequence of DNA (our genetic code), and also epigenetic changes, which do not involve alterations in our genetic code but can control whether a gene is turned on or off.

I also study the cellular context in which genetic and epigenetic changes occur. This is important in my research because sometimes — depending on the signals that are activated by nearby cells — such changes can lead to cancer and may represent a specific Achilles’ heel for a certain cancer type that we may be able to target with drugs.

My lab is using many different approaches to look for novel diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers and targets in sarcomas. These include mapping epigenetic changes, studying the cells of different types of sarcomas and the formation of disease in mouse models, and using high-throughput screens, which can evaluate gene expression signatures in thousands of samples at the same time. Even though we have come very far with targeted therapy, we still have a poor understanding of the biology of many types of sarcoma, and we don’t have a lot of treatment options.

A new focus of my lab is studying something called malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors. The only treatment that can cure these tumors is surgery, and the surgery is very difficult because the tumors often surround crucial nerves. So I’m trying to identify ways to develop targeted therapy for advanced tumors. Understanding their genetic alterations could lead to the development of clinical trials in which drugs or combinations of drugs are selected to work against a particular target.

One of my goals is to get more involved with early-stage clinical trials that exploit the same molecular mechanisms I’m studying in the lab. In particular, for patients with a rare gastrointestinal tumor called GIST, there is a new treatment strategy that targets a gene called ETV1 and potentially could be used as an alternative to and a more effective therapy than the current therapy, a drug called imatinib (Gleevec®), which targets a different gene. My colleagues and I hope to start a clinical trial for this new treatment strategy sometime in 2013.