Junko Ozao-Choy, MD

March 01, 2013

When her parents were stricken with cancer, Dr. Junko Ozao-Choy knew what she had to do.

Junko Ozao-Choy, MDJunko Ozao-Choy, MD, has known her way around a research laboratory since she was a teenager. While most of her high school peers were enjoying their summer vacations, she was working in an immunology lab studying melanoma.

It should be no surprise that the lab is still familiar territory. Today she’s in her third year as a surgical oncology fellow at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, where her research focuses on immunotherapies to treat cancer.

Why cancer research?

“At the very core, I was very interested in why cancer kills people, why it’s so deadly,” she says, sitting in her office at the Institute. “When it’s localized, you can cure it with surgery, but when it spreads, it becomes a very different animal. That’s the central question I was always interested in.”

But there was another reason behind her motivation to work in the field. While growing up in Scarsdale, New York, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and her father developed liver cancer. Her mother survived the disease, but her father did not, passing away when Dr. Ozao-Choy was just 13 years old.

“In a very real way, I was about to be orphaned by the disease,” she says. “It was one story of how modern medicine really helped my mother, but with my father, it didn’t work out that way.”

Dr. Ozao-Choy received her undergraduate degree at Yale and medical degree at Dartmouth and came to JWCI after hearing about the melanoma research pioneered by Donald Morton, MD, chief of the JWCI melanoma program. In the lab and in clinical practice as an oncology surgeon, she searches for answers about how cancer spreads.

“The fellowship is set up so that you have all the tools and the patients you need," she says. "You come in with questions, and then you have a relationship with very experienced researchers who help you refine those questions."

Dr. Ozao-Choy’s current research is on the role of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (cells that help regulate immune responses and tissue repair) in people with advanced melanoma. She is investigating those cells, taken from samples of white blood cells from a trial to assess a prospective melanoma vaccine.

Moreover, while recently investigating scalp melanomas, she found those tumors may have a worse prognosis than others on the head, neck, trunk and extremities. She presented a paper on the topic last year at the annual cancer symposium of the Society of Surgical Oncology.

Dr. Ozao-Choy also works with patients and credits them for much of her motivation to dig deeper into her research.

“I’m always inspired by the patients,” she says. “They’re remarkable. They have sometimes very devastating illnesses and side effects from treatment, and they’re very strong people. They teach me a lot about being strong and courageous. I think that’s a big part of why I want to do what I do.”

Her dedication to her job runs deep. While nearing her due date for the birth of her second child last year, Dr. Ozao-Choy felt well enough to assist in a day-long slate of four surgeries that stretched from early morning to midnight. After finally making it home and going to bed, she woke up an hour later to find her water had broken.

“I must have missed labor somehow, because I went to the hospital and had the baby in a short amount of time,” she says, laughing. “There wasn’t even time to do the paperwork to admit me.”

She and her husband, attorney Jason Choy, enjoy spending time with daughter, Evelyn, now age 1, and older daughter, Isabelle, 4. Isabelle’s hand-drawn pictures decorate a wall of the office.

Ultimately, Dr. Ozao-Choy would like to leave a legacy of finding better cancer treatments and faster cures for future generations, like those her daughters’ ages. “I think it will be a reality in the future that we’ll be able to personalize treatments and make them less toxic for patients – and ultimately have better outcomes.”