Raised where liver disease was prevalent, surgeon commits his career to discovering and delivering novel therapies for liver cancer
Growing up in South Korea where viral hepatitis infections are prevalent, Seung Lee, M.D., Ph.D., observed a high rate of liver cancer, a disease often prompted by the inflammation from chronic infection. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of liver cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, but there isn’t a successful drug to treat the disease in advanced stages. Early on, Lee knew he wanted to commit his career to caring for patients affected by liver disease and to discovering therapies that can effectively treat or cure liver cancer.
Having performed more than 200 living-donor transplants and 300 resections to treat liver cancer, Lee specializes in treating patients with liver disease, including chronic cirrhosis due to hepatitis, injury, cancer and benign tumors.
He joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program in 2019, and his research includes three main focus areas: liver regeneration, genetic biomarkers for liver disease and anticancer drugs.
“The liver is an amazing organ — it’s the only organ that can regenerate itself,” Lee said. “In a routine liver transplant, we typically remove around 70 percent of the liver from a living donor, and the donor’s liver will grow back to 100 percent a couple of weeks later. If we can invent some drugs that can stimulate regeneration, then we can potentially take more than 70 percent of the liver safely, but we don’t currently have any drugs or know of any of the mechanisms that promote liver regeneration.”
Using mouse models, Lee will perform liver resections and then test various medications to identify therapies that support regeneration.
As far as diagnostic biomarkers, some patients’ liver cancers are found in their blood. Lee plans to conduct research that will look at blood samples to identify new biological indicators of liver cancer, which are currently very limited.
“Because there are only a few known biomarkers like AFP or PIVKA-II, I want to identify additional blood biomarkers that are responsible for liver tumor growth,” said Lee, who is also a transplant surgeon at the Hume-Lee Transplant Center and a professor in the Division of Transplant Surgery within the Department of Surgery at the VCU School of Medicine.
Curative options for early-stage liver cancer include transplantation, surgical resection and radiofrequency ablation; however, there are no curative drugs for multiple liver tumors. The main FDA-approved medication to treat advanced liver cancer — sorafenib — only extends patient survival an average of 2-3 months.
“If a patient has multiple tumors, we don’t have any options because it’s very hard to target the cancer,” Lee said. “We have targeted therapies available for breast and lung cancers, but we don’t have any targeted therapy for liver cancer.”
Using photodynamic therapy — treatment that combines a fluorescent dye with a specific wavelength of light to kill cancer cells — Lee hopes to implant human liver cancer cells into mouse models and identify novel drugs to treat disease. Indocyanine green (ICG) is a safe and inexpensive fluorescent dye that is routinely used for diagnostic purposes in humans where the dye is injected into the veins and lights up cancer cells in imaging scans. Lee will study the effects of utilizing ICG combined with a laser therapy on human liver cancer cells transplanted into mouse models as a means to discover clinically effective treatment options for disease. The long-term goal is that eventually Lee will be able to apply his method to cancer patients.
He has been published in more than 50 peer-reviewed journal publications including the American Journal of Transplantation, British Journal of Surgery and Liver Cancer Journal.
Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and graduated from Korea National Open University with a bachelor’s degree in information statistics. He earned a medical degree, Ph.D. and master’s degree in surgery from Seoul National University.
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in hepato-pancreato-biliary surgery and living donor liver transplantation at the National Cancer Center of South Korea, Lee conducted a wide range of liver cancer research and remained on staff as an attending surgeon and assistant professor of cancer policy and science until 2019.
Lee first travelled to the United States in 2017 for a clinical fellowship in abdominal transplant surgery at the University of Virginia Health System. He was attracted to VCU by the university’s strong academic environment and Richmond’s diverse population.
He lives in Short Pump with his wife and three children, and they enjoy fishing and climbing in their free time.