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‘Trust In Yourself’: Mayumi Fujita, MD, PhD, Has Overcome Challenges in Her Cancer Research Career

After losing a child, the CU Cancer Center physician-scientist came to America as a single mother and had to repeat her dermatology residency.

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Written by Mark Harden on May 20, 2024
What You Need To Know

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This is one of a series of profiles of University of Colorado Cancer Center members from those communities who have overcome challenges to achieve success in cancer research.

Mayumi Fujita, MD, PhD, says she is not someone who has had a straightforward path for her career or her life.

She is a physician-scientist who has established a distinguished record as a University of Colorado Cancer Center researcher and vice chair of research in the CU Department of Dermatology, and she has trained many fellows in her lab.

She also lost her first child, raised a son as a single mother, and emigrated from her native Japan to the United States, where her first few years were a struggle.

Fujita has learned from experience to expect the unexpected. “My story is not a straightforward success story,” she says. “It has been a lot of going back and forth.”

As she talks of her journey, it’s clear that Fujita has not always made easy choices, whether it was to leave her native Japan or to repeat her residency in dermatology, a highly competitive field, so she could practice her specialty in America.

She has developed a philosophy that guides her choices: “Life is full of surprises, but trust in yourself, follow your passions, and embrace the journey ahead.”

Choosing happiness

 Fujita went to medical school at Japan’s Kyoto University in the early 1980s. There, she got married and had a baby. “I needed to think whether I should go into residency or take time off to take care of the baby. I decided to take time off.”

Around the time she decided to go back into residency, she had another baby – and then, three months later, her first child died suddenly. “In the morning, she was fine; in the evening, she had died,” she says.

Then came her divorce. “The thought of losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. I felt lost, juggling the weight of grief alongside my duties as a mother, a physician, and a wife.”

That ordeal, she says, “changed my philosophy about life. Life is really unexpected. When I face a decision about which way to go, I ask myself: Which path can make me happier? Or which one may lead to unhappiness?”

That strategy has guided her research choices: “What topic am I interested in? Which one is fascinating? That’s the one I take and pursue. While another one might be more prestigious, pursuing it without passion would make me unsatisfied.”

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Coming to America

She completed her internship and residency at Kyoto University in 1986 and then earned a PhD there in immunology in 1992. Then came the opportunity to do postdoctoral work in tumor biology at what was then the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

“I was a single mom in Japan, and at first, I didn’t think I could come to the U.S. But my Japanese mentor said, ‘They’re looking for a post-doc at the University of Colorado; why don’t you go? If you feel uncomfortable or unsuccessful, you can come back anytime.”

The first few years of adjusting to America were hard. “I always thought, I wish I were back in Japan. As a doctor there, I had more freedom, more respect, and more money. Here in the U.S., I was a foreigner who couldn’t speak English well.”

Fujita also had to decide whether to go through residency all over again to get her U.S. medical license. She could have skipped residency and pursued a research career here.

“I wanted to interact with patients again to understand their unmet needs and what we could do for them. Everybody said, ‘Dermatology is a very competitive field in the U.S., and it’s almost impossible for foreigners to get into the matching system for a dermatology residency.’ Some foreign medical graduates changed the specialty they had overseas to one that’s easier to pursue in the U.S. But I was already trained as a dermatologist and felt it would be best for me to treat dermatology patients again. So, I decided to try it rather than assume I cannot do this.”

Lab Summer Party_editedMayumi Fujita, MD, PhD, at a summer lab party at her home in July 2023 with lab members and their families. Photo courtesy of Mayumi Fujita.

Meeting mentors

She didn’t match the first year. In her second year, she matched at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she completed her second internship and residency in 2002. Then, she was recruited to return to CU to join the dermatology faculty by David Norris, MD, who had been her post-doc mentor and had just become department chair.

“He believed in me,” she says. “I was the first faculty he recruited.”

At CU, Norris introduced Fujita to Charles Dinarello, MD, a distinguished professor of infectious diseases. “He is my research collaborator who influenced me to study tumor inflammation,” she says.

She calls Norris and Dinarello her most influential mentors.

Investigating IL-37

Like her background, Fujita’s research interests are varied. For years, she has investigated various issues involving melanoma, which – unlike many other cancers – has been on the increase over the past few decades.

She also has delved into immunology, inflammatory disease, and molecular biology. A target of her recent work is interleukin-37 (IL-37), a protein discovered in 2010 that helps the body cope with inflammatory diseases and cancer. Ten years ago, Fujita published groundbreaking work on the biology of IL-37.

Currently, she is the primary investigator in grant projects to study how IL-37 controls regulatory T cells, or Tregs, which are white blood cells that help regulate immune response. And she is one of four 2023 recipients of a major grant from the Gates Institute’s Gates Grubstake Fund for her work on using IL-37 to improve the disease-fighting performance of CD4+ T cells, a type of immune blood cell.

While pursuing her own research, which has produced more than 120 peer-reviewed publications, she has trained more than 100 student-fellows in her lab over the years.

No need to be perfect

Asked what message she has for young people who might want to follow in her career path, Fujita offered this advice:

“Even if you’re not a perfect person, even if you think you’re not as smart as someone else, don’t assume you can’t do it. When the chance comes, ask yourself if this is the thing you want to do. And if you’re interested in science, research, or human biology, go for it, as you can help others.”

She adds: “I know that people sometimes struggle to get to the next step. So, for those people who have faced struggles, obstacles, or challenges, maybe my story could be helpful. We don’t always have to be perfect.”

Photo at top: Mayumi Fujita, MD, PhD, third from right, at lunch with members of her lab in November 2022. Photo courtesy of Mayumi Fujita.

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Mayumi Fujita, MD, PhD