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Researchers Under the Scope

Dec 19, 2021

Dr. Erique Lukong grins, pointing to two bracelets on his wrist. One inscribed with the word 'focus'; the other 'believe'.

"I'm passionate about what I do,' he said, describing his journey through medicine as a series of lucky breaks.

In his home country of Cameroon, Lukong was identified early as a promising scholar. Upon graduating from high school, he won an eight-year government scholarship to master both biochemistry and French linguistics.

"They were looking for technical and medical translators to come back to the country," said Lukong, who enroled at Keele University in the United Kingdom, earning double bachelor's degrees.

Lukong then moved to the University of Montreal for his masters-level work.

But his career path changed, after Cameroon's economic and political crisis during the early 1990s. With a young family to support, Lukong opted to stay in North America.

"I had nobody to guide me," said Lukong. "I didn't have somebody who looked like me anywhere."

Undeterred, his work on lysosomes and identifying mutations brought him to McGill, Harvard, and finally the University of Saskatchewan.

Today his lab focuses on the biochemistry of breast cancer.

"From the very first person that I saw, I was already welcome," said Lukong, who vividly remembers the contrast between his job interview in Saskatoon and Quebec. "Everybody was welcoming."

Lukong is a biochemistry professor and a member of the University of Saskatchewan's Cancer Research Cluster. 

His lab aims to pinpoint what BReast tumor Kinase (BRK), non-receptor tyrosine kinase is doing in these patients' bodies. Lukong is also investigating whether its presence is what's leading them to become drug-resistant.

"The big problem we have right now is drug resistance," said Lukong.

He said nearly a third of breast cancer patients taking Tamoxifen will develop some resistance to it.

It's even tougher with Fulvestrant, a secondary treatment, one whose effect wears off in almost all patients over time.

"That's the new direction my lab is taking now," said Lukong.

Lukong also makes time to mentor his researchers, and to find out what their goals are.

For him, one of the most difficult aspects of pursuing a career in biomedical science was that no one else looked like him.

Even today, Lukong said a number of promising Black students often drift away from their studies, or give up on academia.

"All they need is that role model" said Lukong. 

Last year, he became the vice-president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network, which is set to hold its first conference for Black Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine/Health next month.

The four-day "BE-STEMM 2022" virtual conference begins January 30, 2022.

"That's why I'm here. To tell them, you can do it," said Lukong.