Eric Song and the human eye go way back: Before starting an M.D./Ph.D. program at Yale, he was a photography major at the University of Southern California.
Midway through his photography degree, Song met his roommate’s father, who was a pediatric surgeon and realized medicine was “something I can see myself doing,’” Song recalled.
At the time, medical school seemed like a long shot. He switched majors to biochemistry, he said, and “really focused on school and tried to catch up to my peers.” By the time he graduated, he still didn’t feel ready to apply, but found himself drawn to research.
His scientific career first brought him to a lab that focused on cystic fibrosis, then to immunobiology research as a Ph.D. student in Akiko Iwasaki’s lab. “I tend to try to follow what I’m excited about,” he said.
The work Song is most proud of was published in Nature in January 2020, where he and his colleagues showed they may be able to help immunotherapy treatments target a type of brain tumor.
The brain is thought of as one of a few organs with immune privilege — that is, where the immune system doesn’t really function. But the brain still has an indirect connection to the lymph system — which is involved in the immune system — through vessels that run alongside the organ.
Song and his colleagues showed that by giving mice a particular protein called vascular endothelial growth factor C, or VEGF-C, they could increase the flow of fluids from the lymph nodes associated with the brain through those vessels. After they increased that flow, a critical type of immune cells that had flowed in from the lymph nodes became more ready and able to react to immunotherapies — and, therefore, fight tumors. That research has been spun out into a new company. And his work with the brain eventually brought Song back to the eye; Song is currently applying for ophthalmology residencies.
“The eye is an extension of the brain,” he noted. “It’s like the single sense that I most associate with,” he added.
“And if I can help make a change in that — it excites me.”
— Kate Sheridan