Dr. Kang’s work focused on reducing disease’s tendency to spread to liver

Dr. Ningling Kang - The Hormel Institute

The Hormel Institute has added a new cancer research section focused on investigating the mechanisms that cause cancer cells to spread from one area of the body to the liver.

Dr. Ningling Kang recently joined The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota-Mayo Clinic, where she will lead the “Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis” research section. Her department is the 13th cancer research section at The Hormel Institute, which has grown significantly from five sections in 2006 when it began its last expansion project.

Kang has relocated to The Hormel Institute from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where she had been a faculty member since 2007 at its Center for Cell Signaling in Gastroenterology and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. She currently is funded by a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute through 2016, and four scientists will work in her section.

Kang is excited to start working at the Institute.

“I was attracted by the interacting scientific environment and the world-class facilities. The research facilities here are state-of-the-art,” Kang said. “This environment facilitates successful and effective interactions and collaboration between principal investigators.”

Each section leader or principal investigator at the Institute has a unique expertise and focus on a different aspect of cancer research, Kang said. She also has found the Austin area to be very supportive of the Institute’s work.

Kang’s research strives to answer the questions: Why is the liver a preferential invasion site for various cancers, such as gastrointestinal cancers and melanoma, breast and lung cancers; and what are the key cellular factors within the liver that contribute to the implantation and growth of cancer cells in the liver?

Despite significant advances in treating liver metastatic diseases, liver metastases – cancerous tumors that have spread to the liver from somewhere else in the body – remain the principle cause for people dying from cancer. Many cancers show a preference for spreading to the liver, she said. Metastic cancer in the liver is far more common than primary liver cancer.

Kang’s research is focused on bidirectional interactions between tumor cells and the liver microenvironment, with a long-term goal to uncover cellular and molecular mechanisms as well as identify therapeutic targets within the liver for reducing tumor implantation and metastatic growth in the liver.

If communication could be disrupted between cancer cells and the liver, researchers would have mechanisms within the body to prevent tumor growth in the liver, Kang said. This is because cancer cells act like seeds with the liver serving as their soil, providing physical support and essential nutrients for the “seeding” of cancer cells, she said.

Kang’s recent research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, one of the top scientific journals. That research showed that hepatic stellate cells – components of the liver microenvironment that play vital roles in liver functions – present a new therapy target for liver metastases.

Her goal is to investigate whether combinatory therapies that target both cancer cells and the tumor microenvironment would be more effective at reducing liver metastases and increasing the chance of survival benefit for cancer patients.

The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, is a world-renowned medical research center in Austin, Minn., focused on discoveries leading to the prevention and control of cancer.

In July 2013, The Hormel Foundation announced it will make a $23 million commitment toward The Hormel Institute’s next major expansion set to begin in summer 2014 that will double its current size. The expansion will add needed laboratories and space for the Institute’s International Center of Research Technology. The Hormel Foundation will provide $13.5 million in funding as a match to the State of Minnesota’s bonding for the expansion along with $9.5 million to recruit top scientists, equip labs with state-of-the-art technologies, and create a cutting-edge environment for progressive cancer research.

The Hormel Foundation contributed $16.7 million toward the Institute’s 2006-2008 major expansion and renovation project that tripled its size and doubled the number of faculty and staff jobs.