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Hyunwoo “Tony” Kwon

Ohio State University Medical Center

For Hyunwoo “Tony” Kwon, the path to better understanding T cells in tumors began with stag beetles. As a kid, he was obsessed with the insects: their antler-like jaws, chunky trunks, and the way they made a world of rotting wood.

Kwon soon filled his parents’ home in Seoul with dozens of jars of stag beetles at different stages of growth, feeding them different foods and at different time intervals every day to test for any effects on beetle growth. Looking back, he laughs at how unscientific it seems.

“It was me experimenting in the most immature way possible,” Kwon said. “I just really enjoyed learning about how the living systems work.”

Now, Kwon works on a team at the Zihai Li Lab at the Ohio State University Medical Center, where he is both a scientist and a resident physician. His Ph.D. research has focused on showing how T cells get exhausted, losing their ability to divide, grow, and kill target tumor cells.

Kwon investigated why tumors in males had higher levels of exhausted T cells than those in females, making males less able to suppress tumors. Mice and tumor cell models showed differences in androgen levels were the driving factor.

The next big step, taking these findings “from bench to bedside,” has been key to Kwon’s mission since medical school. There, Kwon helped care for patients with stage 4 lung cancer who were participating in a colleague’s clinical trial. One participant who lived another 5 years after the treatment got to be best man at his son’s wedding, Kwon recalls.

“For him to have the opportunity to participate because of what we had worked on in the lab, translated into the clinical setting, I think that’s when I realized that what I’m trying to do as a physician scientist is very meaningful,” he said.

— Ambar Castillo