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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Shi-Yuan Cheng, PhD, professor of Neurology

Shi-Yuan Cheng, PhD

In his laboratory at Feinberg, Shi-Yuan Cheng, PhD, professor of Neurology in the Division of Neuro-Oncology, is dedicated to improving understanding of the molecular mechanisms that drive cancer development and progression, as well as developing novel approaches to treatment. His laboratory is particularly focused on investigating glioblastomas, a common and aggressive form of brain tumor.

In recent high-impact publications, for example, Cheng and his collaborators identifieda mechanism of tumor survival in glioblastoma that could represent a new therapeutic target, as well as providednew insights into signaling pathways in subtypes of glioblastomas.

Cheng is also a member of the Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute at Northwestern Medicine and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

What are your research interests?

The research in my laboratory focuses on studying molecular mechanisms that regulate the phenotypes and therapy responses of glioblastoma, the most malignant brain tumor in humans. In particular, we are investigating how oncogenic signaling is modulated at levels of chromosome, DNA, RNA, and proteins through protein post-translational modifications (phosphorylation, methylation and acetylation), non-coding RNAs such as microRNAs and long non-coding RNAs, DNA methylation, and RNA splicing. 

We are using patient glioma tumor-derived cancer stem cells, patient tumor-derived xenografts, established glioblastoma cell lines and clinical tumor specimens as our model systems. Our research approaches include biochemical, molecular biology, cell biology, epigenetics, histological, bioinformatics, orthotopic tumor xenografts, and other modern technology.  

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

The ultimate goal of my research is to advance our current understanding of cancer biology in general and ultimately to translate our discoveries from our laboratory to clinic for developing novel therapies and improving the efficacy of treatments for patients with glioblastoma. Glioblastoma is one of the most aggressive and malignant cancers in humans, with extremely poor survival. I believe that by working with an outstanding multi-disciplinary neuro-oncology team at Northwestern and investigators across the campus, the U.S. and the world, we are making significant progress toward this goal.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I have been interested in cancer research since I was in college and in my PhD studies. However, I did not have the chance to do cancer research until my postdoctoral trainings. My first postdoctoral lab was a signal transduction lab where I learned so much about intracellular signaling. My second postdoctoral lab, where I stayed for five and a half years, was a cancer biology lab where I started to study cancer biology and tumor angiogenesis/VEGF signaling in glioblastoma. Since I started my own lab in 1999, my research has been evolving into cell signaling and invasion of glioblastoma. After I joined Northwestern University in 2012, I continued our research on novel cell signaling and epigenetics in glioblastoma. We have been focused on the roles of post-translational modification, i.e. protein phosphorylation, methylation and non-coding RNAs.

Where have you recently published papers?

During the past several years, our lab has published papers in Cancer Cell(December 2017), Nature Communications(2016), the Journal of Clinical Investigation(2014), and Neuro-Oncology(2015). We also have co-authored many collaborative papers that were published in Cancer Cell, Nature Cell Biology, Nature Communications,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell Reports, Cancer Research, Oncogene, Molecular Cancer Researchand other peer-reviewed journals.

How is your research funded?

My research projects are currently funded by research grants from the National Institute of Cancer and National Institutes of Neurological Disorder and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health; Northwestern Medicine Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute at the Lurie Cancer Center; and Phi Beta Psi Sorority.

Who makes up your research team and what role does each individual play in your research?

Our current research team includes Dr. Bo Hu, research associate professor of Neurology; five postdoctoral fellows, Drs. Tianzhi Huang, Angel Alvarez, Xiao Song, Yongyong Yang and Xuechao Wan; and a graduate student, Namratha Sastry of the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program. Dr. Hu is a driving force in my laboratory. We have been working together as a team since 2002. Almost all research ideas and hypotheses have been products of our on-going discussions. Each of the postdoctoral fellows and the student has their own research projects that cover the research areas described above. The lab members are highly collaborative in our research activities. We have regular lab meetings and individual meetings with each of the lab members on a bi-weekly basis. We often interact and help each other. Our collaborative nature in the lab has resulted in multi-author publications in all our papers that have been published. Our goal is to provide the best training and research environment that will foster each of our lab members to become independent investigators in the future.