Congratulations to Johnson Ung, Recipient of an NIH F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award

Johnson Ung was awarded an NIH F31 individual predoctoral Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Cancer Institute in July 2022. Johnson is a first-generation graduate student who took two gap years before joining the BIMS program. During this time, he worked as a research technician in the cancer immunotherapy laboratory of Dr. Larry Lum at UVA. He was enthralled by the translational nature of his work and found interacting with patients incredibly moving and uplifting. His experiences in the Lum Lab further solidified his desire to pursue cancer research and inspired him to enroll in UVA’s Biomedical Sciences (BIMS) PhD program. After joining the BIMS program and completing his research rotations, he joined Dr. Thomas P. Loughran Jr’s laboratory, where he is pursuing his PhD in the Microbiology Graduate Program. Johnson had always been interested in developing novel cancer therapeutics and was intrigued by the Loughran Lab’s research on dysregulated sphingolipid metabolism in acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Currently, his PhD research aims to evaluate novel sphingolipid-based therapies to improve current AML treatments and to further the understanding of dysregulated sphingolipid metabolism in the pathogenesis of AML. Johnson has many ongoing projects in the Loughran Lab, but his main project – which was also the basis for his F31 proposal – seeks to improve the effectiveness of the Bcl-2 inhibitor, venetoclax, by inhibiting the pro-survival sphingolipid enzyme, acid ceramidase (AC). Venetoclax is FDA-approved to treat newly diagnosed AML patients who are unable to tolerate induction chemotherapy. It is used in combination with chemotherapy or hypomethylating agents. Unfortunately, responses to venetoclax are short-lived due to drug resistance. Johnson has demonstrated that inhibiting AC potently improves sensitivity to venetoclax in several preclinical models of AML. His current studies are evaluating the mechanisms of synergy and in vivo efficacy of the novel combination. Johnson credits his parents as his primary source of inspiration and motivation. His goal is to continue a career in cancer research, training, and education. In his free time, he enjoys chaffing it up at home, weightlifting, and howling with his foxhound/Kyoshi Warrior, Suki.