Lee Zou, PhD, MGH Research Scholar

Jim and Ann Orr Massachusetts General Hospital Research Scholar, Lee Zou, PhD

On a Quest to Understand Cancer

As a boy, Lee Zou, PhD, spent time in labs. His parents, both biochemistry professors, were among the early scientists who studied DNA in China. They explained to their son that DNA is the hereditary material in humans and most other living organisms. “I was just fascinated by DNA,” Dr. Zou says. “It decides everything in cells, but you can’t see it.”

Lee Zou, PhD, 2011 MGH Research Scholars

Jim and Ann Orr Research Scholar, Lee Zou, PhD

The Excitement of Chasing the Unknown Drives Dr. Zou Today

Dr. Zou has retained his childlike wonder for his chosen field and is motivated by the thrill of uncovering the unknown and sharing that information with the world. As a basic scientist in the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Dr. Zou hopes his work will lead to improved cancer therapies. And, with support from the Jim and Ann Orr MGH Research Scholar Award, Dr. Zou has funding to move forward with his quest to understand cancer.

Mass General has the largest hospital-based biomedical research program in the United States and attracts many of the world’s brightest medical researchers. But researchers, both early-career scientists and established scientists venturing into new areas of investigation with creative, but unproven ideas, face many challenges in securing funding for their work.

That’s why the MGH Research Scholars Program is essential. The program provides financial support to researchers, like Dr. Zou, that allows them to establish results that will appeal to funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

One of the first couples to step forward to support the scholars program was Jim and Ann Orr who donated $500,000. Mr. Orr says he hopes his family’s gift will encourage others to donate. Research at Mass General is exciting because it’s tied to clinical outcomes, Mr. Orr says. “It’s not white-coated lab people, cloistered some place — many are becoming rock stars and working on important questions that impact people’s lives.”

The Tiny Machines in Our Body

Inside our bodies trillions of cells are hard at work. Dr. Zou wants to understand how these cells protect their genome, the set of all the genes contained in each cell. Genes serve as blueprints to produce proteins, which operate as tiny machines to regulate tissues and organs. Dr. Zou is interested in a particular protein, ATR, a master guardian of the genome.

Researchers believe ATR sits in the cell’s central command, its nucleus, and only gets activated once DNA damage occurs. Then, ATR travels to the damaged site and signals to other proteins for help with the repair effort. Dr. Zou has focused on ATR and its role in DNA repair because this pathway has been implicated in breast cancer — people with a mutation in their BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, known tumor suppressors, are at a higher risk.

Dr. Zou’s research could lead to discoveries in other cancers and diseases and may even hold clues to slowing human aging. He plans to use his award to learn more about ATR.

ATR is important to humans in the prevention of cancer, but even primitive single-celled yeast use ATR. “In a sense, that tells you how important this protein is,” Dr. Zou says. “After so many years, such a long evolution, the protein is always there.”

A Critical Time to Support the Best of the Best

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For information about how you can support the Research Scholars Program, please contact the Mass General Development Office at 617-726-2200

After working at Mass General for nearly seven years, Dr. Zou has reached a critical point in his career development — at the very time when funding sources are becoming scarce. “Without the Jim and Ann Orr MGH Research Scholar Award, I wouldn’t be able to try some of the new ideas,” Dr. Zou says.

Competition for these research scholar awards is intense. During the program’s inaugural year, more than 115 researchers applied. Five researchers, the best of the best, including Dr. Zou, were named MGH Research Scholars.

“Dr. Zou is a rising star. His research will give us a better understanding of how to treat cancer. Having researchers, like Dr. Zou, work side by side with clinical investigators, will move new ideas to patient care even faster,” says Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak, PhD, co-chair of the Mass General Research Scholars Award Committee.

For information about how you can support the Research Scholars Program, please contact the Mass General Development Office at 617-726-2200.