Dr. Hoeppner opens lab focused on finding better ways to treat lung cancer
Dr. Luke Hoeppner
Lung cancer – the leading cause of cancer-related death for U.S. men and women – is being targeted by the newest section leader to join The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota.

Dr. Luke Hoeppner, an assistant professor, recently opened his Molecular Biology & Translational Cancer Research section at The Hormel Institute. Hoeppner, who plans to hire two to three scientists to assist with his work, previously conducted research for more than five years at Mayo Clinic in Rochester in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. He is funded by a five-year, $927,000 federal grant through 2018 from the National Institutes of Health.

Hoeppner – whose work has been published in leading scientific journals, such as Cancer Research, Blood and Molecular Oncology – was impressed by The Hormel Institute’s innovative technology and expanding facilities along with the opportunity to collaborate with leading cancer researchers at the Institute.

“The Hormel Institute is a thriving research community,” he said, “and it boasts an outstanding environment for performing cancer studies that will lead to new therapies and improve the lives of those afflicted by this deadly disease.”
Now The Hormel Institute has 14 research sections and has nearly filled the 20-lab addition completed by its 2006-08 expansion that tripled lab space. The Institute’s ongoing 2014-16 expansion will double the size of its facilities and jobs when completed in 2016.

Hoeppner’s cutting-edge research aims to develop new therapies to block the progression of lung cancer and prevent tumor cells from acquiring resistance to current treatments, which, for most lung cancer patients, do not cure them from the disease. He will use a variety of models, including lung cancer patient samples.

“I want to improve the dismal survival rate of lung cancer patients and find an innovative way to fight drug resistance in tumors,” Hoeppner said.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Smoking is the biggest cause of lung cancer but risk of the disease is increased by exposure to secondhand smoke and environmental exposures, such as radon, workplace toxins and air pollution.

Hoeppner’s work recently demonstrated that molecules binding to dopamine D2 receptor inhibit lung cancer progression by reducing a tumor’s ability to create new blood vessels, which is required for tumor survival and growth. He also is investigating other molecular components of the dopamine signaling pathway that have been implicated in breast cancer drug resistance and might play a role in acquired resistance to treatment regiments often used for lung cancer.

Another focus area of Hoeppner’s lab is vascular permeability or the ability of a blood vessel wall to allow small molecules to pass through it. He is studying a molecule called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that promotes vein formation. Following a heart attack or stroke, VEGF is highly expressed, leading to leaky veins and tissue damage but VEGF also plays a beneficial role by promoting tissue repair.

Given the complex role of VEGF in these diseases, Hoeppner said, it is vital to identify the precise mechanism by which VEGF regulates the leakiness of veins. Understanding the process will enable researchers to develop new drugs that will help patients recover from a heart attack or stroke, he added.

As part of its 2014-16 expansion, The Hormel Institute is adding a $4.5 million Live Learning Center to its west side, featuring a multipurpose room and 250-seat lecture hall with theater-style seating and state-of-the-art, global-communications technology. Fundraising is ongoing for the remaining $500,000 needed for acquiring the technology that will enhance medical research collaborations and presentations via the Live Learning Center. Gifts of $500 or more will be honored a new donor recognition wall; those who give $1,000 or more will be invited to the June 1, 2016, historic reception for the Live Learning Center’s first international cancer research symposium.