In 2012, chemist Lijun Sun, PhD, joined the Department of Surgery to establish and lead the Center for Drug Discovery and Translational Research.

A Conversation with Lijun Sun, PhD

Q: You were educated in China and later at Georgetown University and then Emory University in Atlanta, where you earned your PhD in Chemistry in 1995. What led you to work in the biopharmaceutical industry focusing on drug discovery and development, versus taking a more traditional route, such as working for a chemical company?

A : I’d finished my PhD and learned about a post-doctoral research opportunity in the medical school at Emory that sounded interesting, so I pursued it. At the time I knew very little about biology and it was an eye-opening experience for me to discover that chemistry could make an important contribution to medical research.

After two years of post-doctoral research, I left Atlanta for Cambridge, where I worked at Shionogi BioResearch for five years [Director of Chemistry], later moving to Synta Pharmaceuticals for nearly 10 years [Vice President of Chemistry], and then to Theracrine, a biotech startup [Vice President of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences], before coming to BIDMC.

During those 15 years, I took on greater responsibilities and participated in the clinical development of a number of first-in-class, novel molecular entities with the potential to treat cancers and autoimmune diseases. I was fortunate to be involved in the entire drug R&D process numerous times, which gave me a unique big-picture perspective that informs my work here at BIDMC.

Q : With such a successful track record in industry, why did you choose to change course and come to an academic medical center?

A : I believe the best way to discover and develop new drugs that will help patients is to understand the biological targets of those drugs at a deep level. This enables you to design biologically active molecules that take specific aim at those pathways or targets — to design drugs using a rational approach versus taking a less focused approach.

I came to BIDMC because I wanted to collaborate with academic investigators who have this deep understanding so that we could, by combining our complementary skills and knowledge, accelerate their translational research. I also knew that joining the Harvard community of outstanding investigators doing cutting-edge research would present many exciting opportunities for collaboration.

Q : In what ways does the center collaborate with investigators, and what are some of the results of those collaborations thus far?

A: I collaborate with investigators in the development of research proposals, including contributing to study design and identifying future directions. Working with investigators in Surgery and other departments, for example, we have submitted a number of new grant applications that are under review. We [with Vikas Sukhatme, MD, PhD] recently received a major three-year grant from FujiFilm Pharmaceuticals to pursue drug design for applications in cancer.

We are also working with Surgery investigators Wolfgang Junger, PhD, Elliot Chaikof, MD, PhD, and others to develop drug discovery projects relating to cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, immunology, and nanotechnology.

We are building and expanding our capabilities in molecular design, in silico [computer] screening, computational predictive modeling, drug synthesis, and pharmaceutics, all of which are available to investigators we collaborate with. I’m developing partnerships with core facilities in the Longwood Medical Area and Harvard University, which will further expand our capabilities.

A Conversation with Lijun Sun, PhD Q : You also conduct your own independent research. What is the focus of those investigations?

A : My research involves the natural product migrastatin, which has been shown to prevent cancer metastasis. I hope my research of migrastatin will lead to a better understanding of cancer metastasis, which could help us identify novel treatment and prevention strategies.

I am also investigating aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), which is a key player in modulating innate and adaptive immunity. AhR is not well understood, but may be a novel target for treating conditions such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and transplant rejection. We have generated encouraging results from a number of new series of molecules.

Q : How will you define success for the center in the short term and the long term?

A : In the short term, we want to help generate exciting data so we can sustain ongoing collaborations and, simultaneously, build up the infrastructure of the center so we can be more comprehensive in terms of providing expertise in drug discovery.

In the long term, as a result of both our independent and collaborative efforts, we want to discover and develop new pharmaceuticals — or inspire the discovery of new pharmaceuticals for collaborators in industry to develop — with the ultimate goal of benefiting patients, which is a goal we all share.