August 26, 2005

Study Examines Cancer Cells' Reproduction

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Prof. Jun-Lin Guan, molecular medicine, revealed one important aspect of basic mechanism behind the spreading of cancer in his latest study, published in the journal Developmental Cell. Cancer’s ability to spread (metastasize) throughout the body is what makes it deadly; understanding the spreading process will aid researchers in developing therapies to interrupt metastasis.

Since his post doctoral at MIT for cancer research, Guan has focused on basic mechanisms relevant to all different types of cancer. In his most recent study, he uncovered how connective tissue on the surface of a cancer cell degrades, allowing the malignant cell to spread to other parts of the body.

Two enzymes, FAK and SRC, appear to contribute to cancer spreading by regulating another enzyme that is only on the surface of cancer cells.

“The importance is that this process is specific to cancer cells. Normal cells are not affected, so drugs to inhibit this process will not interfere with normal functioning,” Guan said.

This discovery may alleviate side effects otherwise resulting from cancer drugs and radiation. Difficulty arises when cancer cells are cut out or radiated. In the process, both cancer cells and normal cells are destroyed. By using a molecular approach, Guan’s goal is to develop specific steps to target only cancer cells and leave normal cells unharmed.

What comes next in the research process? According to Guan, several elements have yet to be understood.

He plans to begin studying other mechanisms that may contribute to the spreading of cancer.

“We don’t know the whole pool of targets. We want a complete picture … Are other enzymes affected?” Guan said.

Guan will also examine specific inhibitors in the spreading process. In related research, Guan has been studying blood vessels that grow into tumors and cause cancer. This process of angiogenesis provides nutrients for tumors to grow. In addition, leaky vessels allow cancer to enter the blood and spread throughout the body.

“We created genetically modified mice in which FAK is specifically inactivated in the blood vessel cells and shown that FAK regulates the formation of the blood vessels in vivo. These studies suggested that FAK inhibitors can target the tumor and inhibit blood vessel growth,” Guan said. “This may be more effective than treating the tumor itself.”

The goal of all cancer research is to gain insight into the processes behind the powerful disease. Recently, cancer research and drugs have focused more on metabolic pathways that allow cancer to metastasize. This marks an important expansion in the scope of basic cancer research.

“Now is an exciting time for biomedical research. In the last 20 years we have accumulated knowledge, particularly in the last several years with the help of increased federal funding,” Guan said.

With funding leveling off, Guan worries that research initiatives might suffer as a result.

“I hope that the support and momentum continues,” Guan said.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman
Sun Staff Writer