BIMS Spotlight: PhD Candidate Johnson Ung Receives F99/K00 Award from the National Cancer Institute

September 19, 2023 by

The Loughran Lab with Johnson Ung, center of bottom row

The Loughran Lab, with Johnson Ung in center of bottom row.

Biomedical sciences (BIMS) graduate student Johnson Ung was awarded a F99/K00 grant through the National Cancer Institute branch of the National Institutes of Health this past month. This award is granted to selected senior graduate students to support them in the final two years of their doctoral work and up to four years of their post-doctoral work in an academic laboratory at a new institution. These applications are extremely competitive and each institution is only allowed one nominee each year that is selected through an internal review board.

Ung is currently a fifth-year PhD candidate in the lab of UVA Cancer Center Director Thomas P. Loughran, Jr., MD, where he researches therapeutics for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). For the F99 phase, he proposed to study the efficacy of targeting dysregulated sphingolipid metabolism, a regulator of cell survival and proliferation, in AML by employing inhibitors to the enzyme acid ceramidase (ACDase), which reduces levels of the tumor suppressive sphingolipid, ceramide. Ung has extensively tested ACDase inhibitors in both cell lines and patient samples alone and in combination with FDA-approved drugs that are currently utilized for AML. Moving forward, Ung aims to utilize these inhibitors in vivo to examine their preclinical efficacy in a xenograft murine model. As part of his F99, he also aims to uncover the mechanisms of synergistic lethality of combining ACDase inhibition with the clinically utilized Bcl-2 inhibitor, venetoclax. His work seeks to elucidate how ceramides prime AML for mitochondria-mediated cell death, which he is particularly excited to pursue further during the remainder of his doctoral training and into his postdoctoral fellowship. For the post-doctoral K00 phase, Johnson proposed to study the molecular underpinnings of sphingolipid metabolism in the context of mitochondrial apoptotic priming in triple-negative breast cancer.

Johnson’s passion to pursue a career in cancer research stemmed in high school when he, like many in academia, was convinced that he was driven to cure cancer. Classically trained as a chemist at the University of the Redlands, Johnson got his first taste of biological and cancer research under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer E. Adair at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle as a summer intern. He then made his way to UVA to work with Dr. Lawrence G. Lum where he was able to explore the translational aspect of cancer research.

From there, Johnson was inspired to apply to UVA’s BIMS PhD program where he has found success under the guidance of Dr. Loughran and other lab members, notably Dave Feith, PhD, and Su-Fern Tan, PhD. During his graduate career, Johnson has been very productive and has been awarded several prestigious awards including an F31 grant through the NIH, and the Wagner Fellowship and DoubleHoo awards through UVA. Johnson also has served as the Graduate Biosciences Society co-president for two consecutive years now and as a student training ambassador for the annual Cancer Biology Training Consortium.

Johnson expressed his excitement at receiving this award but mentioned that his initial reaction involved a sense of disbelief. Receiving this high honor is the culmination of his continued hard work. To students who are in the early stages of their doctoral work, Johnson offers this advice: jump on every opportunity that you have because you are more capable than you think, effort goes a long way, and do not be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone!

Johnson has truly been an integral part of the BIMS community, and we congratulate him on this prestigious award!

BIMS students may contact Kendall Bromley and Nicole Kirk to get recognized for accomplishments and research.

Article written by Kendall Bromley and Nicole Kirk. 

Filed Under: Education, Honors & Awards