Inspired by her mentors Julie Kim, PhD, Susy Y. Hung Research Professor and associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology-Reproductive Biology Research, strives to understand the role of progesterone receptors in uterine disease.
Progesterone, a hormone whose main purpose is to prepare for and maintain a pregnancy, can contribute to diseases of the uterus when key regulators go awry.
Progesterone action is primarily mediated through its receptor, which is controlled by a complex network of interactions with signaling pathways, transcription factors, coregulators, chromatin remodeling factors, and DNA. Aberrations in these regulators can lead to a uterine lining that is refractory to embryo implantation, or can manifest as diseases of the uterus, such as endometrial cancer.
Before joining the medical school in 2003, Kim earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Toronto, completed her graduate education in cellular and molecular biology at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, and her postdoctoral training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in understanding sex steroid hormone activities in the female reproductive tract and why their actions are often aberrant in diseases of the uterus such as endometrial cancer and uterine fibroids. I am particularly interested in studying the influence of the AKT signaling pathway, which is hyperactivated in endometrial cancer due to prevalent PTEN mutations on progesterone receptor function. I am also interested in understanding the role of the PI3K/AKT pathway in uterine fibroids, which are benign tumors that grow in response to estrogen and progesterone, and which occur in more than 70 percent of premenopausal women.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
The ultimate goal of my research is to use the information generated from the molecular mechanisms of progesterone receptor action in normal and diseased tissues to identify novel and efficient targets for the treatment of advanced endometrial cancer and uterine leiomyomas. Both of these uterine diseases have very little effective treatment strategies. For example, uterine fibroids are the main reason for hysterectomies in women, and there are no effective alternatives to surgery. Advanced endometrial cancer, unlike low-grade endometrial cancer, carries a poor prognosis, and very little can be done in such cases. The lack of knowledge of the biology of these diseases is, in my opinion, the main culprit.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus and beyond?
I collaborate closely with the gynecologic oncology team, who provide the clinical expertise and tissue specimens for my projects in endometrial cancer.
I also collaborate with investigators on a program project for uterine fibroids: Serdar Bulun, MD; Debu Chakravarti, PhD; Jian-jun Wei, MD; Erica Marsh, MD; and Romana Nowak, PhD (UIUC). I am part of a cooperative program to build an entire female reproductive tract on a microfluidic platform (FemKUBE) which mimics a 28-day menstrual cycle in vitro with Teresa Woodruff, PhD, Joanna Burdette, PhD (UIC), and Mary Ellen Pavone, MD. I also have a project to study hormonal responses of the human endocervix in collaboration with Tom Hope, PhD, in order to understand how hormones can influence HIV transmission in women. Finally, I am collaborating with Seema Khan, MD, to study the role of anti-progestins for breast cancer prevention.
Such collaborations have been fundamental in allowing me to investigate important clinical questions at the biological level. They have also provided me opportunities to explore new areas of research which could not have been possible on my own.
How is your research funded?
Currently, I have an R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to study progesterone receptor/AKT crosstalk in endometrial cancer. I am also part of a P01 program grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the role of AKT in uterine fibroids. The construction of the reproductive tract microphysiological system is funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (UH2/UH3). Finally, the hormonal changes in the endocervix project is funded by the Gates Foundation.
Of which honors are you most proud?
In 2012, I was awarded the Susy Y. Hung Endowed Professorship, which was an incredible and humbling moment for me. I am grateful to the Hung family as well Feinberg for granting me the Professorship. This endowment represents my passion for scientific research and the people that enable me to do what I love the most.
Who inspires you?
There are many people that inspire me, but if I had to choose those that truly impact my life, they are the people that I interact with on a daily basis. I am inspired by my mentors Teresa Woodruff, PhD, and Serdar Bulun, MD, who demonstrate exceptional leadership skills, strategic and organizational thinking, and are visionaries. I am inspired by the incredible people in my lab who show enthusiasm and excitement in their work on a daily basis. I am inspired by my collaborators and colleagues who educate me in new areas of research. And I am inspired by the patients who participate in our research programs who believe that someday the research will benefit others going through similar situations. These are the people that inspire me.