Tales from... Dr Junyun Lai

I was fascinated by how all these cells that played different roles would come together to protect the body by orchestrating a milieu of diverse responses depending on the context

Dr Junyun Lai

I was fortunate to have a supportive family (especially mum) who did their best to ensure that I received a decent education and never felt underprivileged growing up. During my undergraduate studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, I was particularly drawn towards immunology, eventually deciding that I would pursue this topic for my PhD. I was fascinated by how all these cells that played different roles would come together to protect the body by orchestrating a milieu of diverse responses depending on the context (e.g. bacterial, parasitic or viral infection), how there is balance in all of it and how dysregulation can sometimes lead to huge consequences in health (cancer, autoimmunity, allergy).

During my PhD at the National University of Singapore, Cancer Immunotherapy was named Science’s Breakthrough of the Year in 2013. A form of new treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system to target cancer, cancer immunotherapy sounded exactly what I would love to work on for the rest of my research career. By the time I finished my PhD, I had already knew that I wanted to pursue a postdoc overseas. My research experiences had culminated into what I believe was a decent CV, and I always credit Paul Beavis for responding very quickly to my job enquiring email. The Peter Mac struck me as the perfect institute to hone my research expertise in this area. Moreover, Australia has an exceptional and longstanding research track record in immunology, and Melbourne was only a 7-hour flight away from home. And so for me, the decision was a rather easy one to make.

My current research aims to enhance chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy in solid cancers, a challenging topic that is not only interesting to me, but also has a clear potential for clinical translation. A key hurdle that I am trying to address is tumour antigen heterogeneity, which is manifested as tumour relapse post-treatment from cancer cells that have not been eliminated by initial therapy. A strategy we have recently developed is by engineering CAR T cells to actively engage the host immune system during treatment (Figure 1). Using preclinical cancer models, we have demonstrated that this approach is effective in eradicating tumour cells that are not targeted by CAR T cells, therefore potentially enhancing this therapy in the treatment of heterogeneous solid tumours. This has subsequently led to new directions in my work, with a focus on understanding its underlining fundamental biology and ways to improve its clinical application.

Coming from a different background, I like to think that one of the greatest advantages of a research career is how your skill sets are directly transferrable – you can literally show up in another lab across the globe and with the same tools you will be able to start your research almost immediately. Although this professional transition into another workplace may sound practically seamless on paper, there is sometimes an additional layer of fitting into a new research culture of a different environment, particularly when one moves between countries. Growing up in a traditionally Asian culture and to then migrate here has made it quite apparent to me the differences in daily experiences and expectations within the workplace and life in general. Whilst I certainly think that there is more focus on issues surrounding gender, diversity and inclusion on an institutional level here, on a personal level there have also been occasions where I find myself questioning if others have “pre-defined” me in a particular way, based entirely on features about my being that I cannot change, such as physical appearance and accent. Although casual racism may sometimes seem innocent or a simple error, it is easy to forget what it’s like for the person at the receiving end. The fact that your identity and the image that you work so hard to build gets merely confused with another person, your existence being reduced to a faceless individual whom others cannot not be bothered to remember, especially in a career like science, can slowly chip away your confidence and the feeling of belonging to the broader scientific community that prides itself for its diversity.

Moving here has also made me increasingly aware of how certain aspects of one’s cultural or social upbringing can somewhat be at odds with the expectations of this career. For instance, I would consider humility as a key virtue in my culture, but research often requires you to be good at the ‘sales pitch’ about yourself and/or your work. This is particularly true when it comes to major performance indicators like giving presentations, funding applications and manuscript submissions that directly impact your success in this career. Beyond addressing scientific questions that I fundamentally enjoy doing, these significant aspects of the vocation would require you to be almost counter-intuitive of your very being, and this is an unspoken hurdle whose impact is often underappreciated and not discussed. This is a prime example of a system that often rewards bravado over breakthroughs and is inherently setup to favour some, and disadvantage others. Speaking with other like-minded individuals have made me come to realise that this is not something unique to me, and that many others do face similar challenges albeit in different forms within their research. Therefore, I believe that it is imperative to keep this conversation going, so that we may work towards a global research culture that truly embraces diversity.

Figure legend: Engaging the host immune system during CAR T cell therapy of solid cancers. (1) CAR T cells eliminate tumour antigen-positive cancer cells, (2) whilst secreting a soluble factor that activates host dendritic cells. (3) These dendritic cells then trigger a host killer T cell response to (4) eradicate tumour antigen-negative cancer cells that are not recognised by the CAR T cells.

Dr Junyun Lai is a Cancer Research Institute Irvington Postdoctoral Fellow working in the Darcy and Beavis laboratories. Prior to relocating to Melbourne to join the Peter Mac in 2018, Junyun obtained her PhD from the National University of Singapore and performed a one-year postdoctoral stint at the cancer immunotherapy start-up company Tessa Therapeutics. Junyun’s current research focuses on enhancing chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy in solid cancers by engaging the host immune system, and has published her work as lead author in top tier journals including Nature Immunology, Nature Reviews Immunology and Blood. Junyun is also currently a member of the Peter Mac’s Research Gender Equity and Diversity Committee.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @JunyunLai
ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5884-2786
ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Junyun-Lai
​​​​​​​Linkedin: https://au.linkedin.com/in/junyun-lai-35496b40

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