It was in pharmacy school in Toronto, Canada, that Gregory Poon realized he had an affinity for laboratory research.
“It was interesting to discover that something was the way it was because I found it to be so, not because someone told me or I read it,” Poon said. He liked that.
How he ended up in pharmacy school started with an interest in science. Pharmacy was an appealing field of study because of its diverse curriculum. “In pharmacy you take courses in biology, physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, some social sciences, and even business,” Poon said. “So it’s interesting that way, experiencing the ethos of these diverse disciplines but at the same time how they come together for the common purpose of improving health.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, Poon supported himself through graduate school by working as a pharmacist in different settings, most of them hospital-related. He graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, and then continued working as a pharmacist during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ontario Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Genomics and Proteomics.
Poon has been on faculty at the WSU College of Pharmacy since 2008 and has developed a research program around a specific group of proteins – known as transcription factors – that regulate the expression of genes in a highly coordinated and intricate manner, making them attractive but challenging targets for therapeutic drugs.
He also teaches pharmaceutics and the integrated pharmacology series in the Doctor of Pharmacy program, graduate courses in drug-receptor interactions and biophysical methods, and an undergraduate course in DNA biotechnology at the WSU Honors College.
Poon just received two new federal grants for his research:
- The National Science Foundation has awarded him $510,364 for the next three years, and because a major focus for the NSF is attracting students into science, technology, engineering and math – or the STEM fields – he will be attempting to do that. The NSF grant is for basic science research into the behavior of a common family of transcription factors known as ETS proteins. “We know broadly how they work, but many essential aspects have remained obscure and there’s a lot we don’t know,” Poon said. “We need to learn much more about how they behave physically in order to rationally design drugs for them. Otherwise, you are just throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something sticks, which is neither very efficient nor intellectually satisfying.”
- The National Institutes of Health has awarded him $431,958 for the next three years to study a transcription factor known as PU.1 that is involved in several blood cancers. His laboratory has recently discovered novel properties of PU.1, and this grant will support additional research that may allow new drugs to be designed to control it.While the NSF has a strong interest in promoting basic science and increasing STEM participation, the NIH is primarily about improving human health, Poon said, explaining the difference between the two funding agencies and what his primary focus must be for each grant.Despite being one of the largest functional family of proteins encoded by the human genome, only five percent of all transcription factors currently have drugs that specifically affect them, Poon said. But these drugs already represent the second largest group of market-approved medicines. “As we learn more about their physical behavior,” he said, “transcription factors are poised to become new avenues for treating swathes of existing diseases as well as stem cell research.”