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Dr. Erique Lukong (PhD) is a biochemistry professor and breast cancer researcher. (Photo: submitted)

Behind BRK, biochemistry and breast cancer: Dr. Erique Lukong

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

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"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 enrolled at Keele University in the United Kingdom, earning double bachelor's degrees. 

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

But after Cameroon fell into economic and political crisis in the early 1990s, Lukong’s translation plan changed. His parents urged him to stay put in North America. 

"I had nobody to guide me," said Lukong, who juggled his academic work in Montreal with the demands of a young family. "I didn't have somebody who looked like me anywhere." 

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

Lukong is a biochemistry professor and a member of USask's Cancer Research Cluster. 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." 

His lab aims to pinpoint what breast tumour 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. 

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. He remembers one of the most difficult aspects of pursuing a career in biomedical science was that no other faces in the lab looked like his. 

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.  

In 2020, 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.

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