Research fellow Ee Ming Wong awarded prestigious University of Melbourne Fellowship
The Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory’s Ee Ming Wong, whose breakthrough research identified the role of DNA methylation in specific breast cancer patients, has just been awarded a prestigious Dyason Fellowship by the University of Melbourne.
Ming, a post-doctoral researcher, has studied cancer risk factors for more than 12 years. While undertaking her PhD under the guidance of Professor Melissa Southey, Ming discovered that promoter methylation of the BRCA1 gene was associated with a 3.5-fold increased risk of developing breast cancer in specific groups. As a result of her work, multiple studies have been set up to identify methylation risk factors associated with various cancers, including breast, prostate, colorectal, lung, gastric and B-cell lymphona. Ming is the chief investigator on three of these projects, totalling $2.35 million, funded by the NHMRC.
After gaining a science degree (Hons) majoring in genetics and bio-chemistry, Ming worked for a few years as a research assistant with Professor Southey. As a result of the close bond she developed with Professor Southey, Ming decided to continue her research in the area of breast cancer. ‘‘I really wanted to work in an area where my research could make a difference and had a direct impact, whether that was in a hospital setting or a lab environment.’’ Ming’s PhD focused on women under the age of 40 who developed breast cancer but did not have any mutations in the BRCA1 gene, meaning their cancer had to be explained by other reasons. Currently identifiable mutations in the genes known to cause breast cancer, including BRCA1 and BRCA2, explain less than 30 per cent of all breast cancers diagnosed in women from multiple-case breast cancer families. Ming’s PhD research on promoter methylation has been replicated by other researchers, opening up opportunities for research into heritable epimutations and potential prevention therapies.
Ming grew up in a small town in Malaysia about two hours drive from Kuala Lumpur. She then moved to KL to complete her primary and high school studies. From a young age she knew she wanted to be a scientist: ‘‘I loved biology. I was not a creative person, nor was I particularly interested in numbers, but I loved learning about the living world around me.’’
In her short career Ming has already published 16 peer-reviewed papers and one book chapter. Ming will spend her fellowship in New York at Columbia University, working with the highly regarded breast cancer epidemiologist Professor Mary Beth Terry. Professor Terry, an early proponent of methylation as a risk factor for breast cancer, is also the principal investigator of the New York Breast Cancer Family Registry, a large cohort of high-risk breast cancer families which is part of a wider, international Breast Cancer Family Registry. The BCFR, a unique resource, involves six international research sites (New York, California, Philadelphia, Utah, Ontario and Melbourne) and has been following families since 1995. Some 30,000 women and men from nearly 12,000 families are involved in the project.
The fellowship is named after Edward Clarence Evelyn Dyason, a notable humanist, philanthropist and engineer in Melbourne who in 1947 bequeathed the university half of his residuary estate for the advancement of education. Dyason Fellowships fund university staff to undertake or host a short-term international visit that fosters significant and lasting research collaborations with leading international researchers and their academic networks.