Alberta Cancer Foundation

Recruiting the Best to Alberta

By: Deaniell Cordero

Illustration by Dane Thibeault.

When Toronto’s Dr. Jongbok Lee was ready to take his research to the next level, a move to Calgary seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Lee’s research is in immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that uses our own immune system to treat cancer. Immunotherapy boosts the immune system’s natural function to fight diseases to better prevent cancer cells from developing or worsening. It also helps stop cancer cells from spreading across the body. 

Lee focuses on the body’s T cells — a type of white blood cell that’s part of the immune system — and how these cells can target cancer cells to revolutionize treatment. Specifically, he’s focused on developing new cell therapies using a unique subset of immune cells known as double-negative T cells (DNT). Lee earned his PhD in immunology from the University of Toronto in 2019, where he researched how safe and effective DNT therapy is in fighting acute myeloid leukemia. Part of his research also involved investigating whether DNT can be used for cancer treatment on a large scale to reduce treatment costs and increase patient accessibility. 

T-cell immunotherapy, in general, can be challenging, and Lee says that, “about half of eligible patients don’t end up receiving treatment for several reasons.” One of those reasons is financial, but there’s also a significant wait time to access treatment, limiting its viability for those with serious conditions. “Making [DNT therapy] more of an off-the-shelf accessible approach will minimize the time a patient has to wait,” he says.

In his hunt to further his research, Lee became intrigued by the innovation happening in Alberta. Another appealing aspect for him was joining the collaborative camaraderie of the University of Calgary’s Alberta Cellular Therapy and Immune Oncology Initiative (ACTION) team. 

“It felt like this was a team trying to build therapy to benefit patients as soon as possible in an optimal manner,” Lee says. “It was a growing team with growing funding, and people understood what each member was doing.” 

Lee applied for, and was eventually hired by, the University of Calgary as an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, passing on other potential opportunities in his native Toronto and overseas in Korea in favour of Alberta. He arrived in Calgary this past March, with funding and support from the University of Calgary, Alberta Cancer Foundation and Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and opened his lab at the Cumming School of Medicine in July. 

Lee spent his first few months in Calgary focused on building his team and deciding the next steps to rapidly translate his research findings to benefit patients with unmet needs. He’s also excited to take on a strong mentorship role. 

“One of my biggest passions as a researcher and as a professor in Calgary is to train future scientists,” says Lee. “Providing good mentorship can really help these young potential scientists to think about what they want to do and how they want to make changes in the scientific community.”

Lee is hopeful for the future of his research and believes that Calgary is a great fit to pursue his goals alongside his ambitious colleagues.