Hong Sun & Hui Zhang

The Cancer Trailblazers

Hiking the trails of Red Rock National Conservation Area affords Hong Sun and Hui Zhang the cherished freedom to roam and commune with nature. But it’s in the cluttered laboratory on the third floor of the Nevada Cancer Institute (NVCI) that the husband-and-wife team truly blazes trails and connects with nature.

“You feel you are closer to nature when you’ve discovered something, when you’ve unraveled some secret of nature,” says Sun, who along with Zhang has devoted her career to cancer research.

Together, they “bring a level of expertise to this community that simply wasn’t available previously,” says Dr. Giuseppe Pizzorno, director of the Division of Translational Sciences at NVCI. “Both are experts in an area of cancer genetics that may very well yield the targets needed to slow cancer growth and eventually eliminate cancer cells.”

Sun, the daughter of two Chinese scientists, specializes in genomics, the study of an organism’s genetic makeup, to identify the signaling pathways that regulate cell growth. Her work could help scientists and pharmaceutical companies develop more targeted and effective chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Zhang, whose father died of lung cancer, studies proteomics, investigating protein’s role in cancer development, identifying protein biomarkers—signatures in the body that indicate the presence of disease—and defining proteins to target for new cancer therapies.

Sun and Zhang, both 52, met in the early 1980s in a program to introduce higher-education students in China to U.S. universities. Of the 200 students who took a competitive exam in English, Sun was No. 1 and Zhang was No. 2. She went to Harvard University and Zhang went to Johns Hopkins University to complete their Ph.Ds. They worked at Yale University’s School of Medicine for a decade before arriving in Las Vegas three years ago.

Their presence helps NVCI recruit new researchers. “Zhang has a close affiliation with Peking University, which is extremely helpful to recruitment,” Pizzorno says. “Through him, we have an open channel to Peking University students and researchers who collaborate with us, and some have joined the NVCI as junior faculty.”

Sun and Zhang have two daughters, a 20-year-old who is a junior at Princeton and a 7-year-old with whom they conduct whimsical home experiments involving volcanoes and dinosaurs. It is the kind of household where Mom and Dad playfully spar over which metaphor better describes the rhythms of cancer research. He compares it to a fishing expedition, with each new clue pulled from lakes connected to each other and the larger environment. She likens it to an archaeological dig, with each newly excavated clue yielding a larger truth or leading to another site.