Target and Control Strategies to Battle Cancer
Target & Control Strategies Mining Breast Cancer Imaging Data Molecular Complexity Treating a Chemotherapy Side Effect Catching Cancer Before It Spreads Sentinel Against Ovarian Cancer Peering into the Body - MRI Changing Cell Signaling Pathways Molecular Profiles of Cancer
3-D Modeling - Prostate Cancer Neutron-Based Therapies Calculating Radiation Dosage Fighting Disease with Disease Optimizing Radiation Therapy A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Story A Stomach Cancer Survivor’s Story More Geogia Tech Cancer Research
Cover Story Target-and-Control STRATEGIES
to Battle CANCER
Researchers pursue new approach instead of traditional
search-and-destroy methods to deal with cancer.
by JANE M. SANDERS
AFTER AN INCONCLUSIVE mammogram followed by months of watching and worrying, Missy noticed a sudden change in the hardened lump in her right breast. A biopsy followed, and a few weeks later, the 38-year-old found herself being wheeled into surgery for a mastectomy. Scared and uncertain about her prognosis, she expected the worst.
photo by Gary Meek
Georgia Institute of Technology Professor of Biology Al Merrill, center, heads the institute’s Cancer Research Council. Here, he is assisted by biology graduate students Jia Wei, foreground, and Chris Haynes. (300-dpi JPEG version - 445k)
Indeed, Missy’s tumor was an aggressive one, and doctors recommended six months of chemotherapy and a long course of the anti-estrogen drug Tamoxifen, which induced menopause-like symptoms and increased her risk of uterine cancer. Myriad side effects followed nausea, vomiting, hair loss, infections accompanied by anger and anxiety.
“I was mad as a hornet,” she recalls. “I resented the fact that at 38, I had lost my breast and went into early menopause. I think I could’ve gotten by with fewer chemo treatments.”
Missy now cancer free, but still anxious was one of the 1.3 million cancer patients a year who are treated under a “search-and-destroy” method of fighting the disease. That strategy depends upon radiation and chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, but it also kills healthy cells. Patients often get sicker before they can get better.
photo by Gary Meek
Missy was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now disease-free, she is an active “Relay for Life” American Cancer Society fundraiser at the metro Atlanta high school where she teaches science. Fundraising activities include bake sales and sponsored walks.
But cancer research is changing this paradigm to a broader one aimed at targeting and controlling the disease. Not only should doctors be able to detect cancer cells, but also find genetically abnormal cells that are predisposed to becoming cancerous, explains Georgia Institute of Technology Professor of Biology Al Merrill, who heads the university’s Cancer Research Council.
“Target and control goes after abnormal cells at an early stage. Better than killing them, we want to control them, to find out what’s wrong with them,” Merrill explains. “Often it’s a signaling pathway that’s abnormal. So maybe, there’s a way a drug or a nutrient to make these cells normal again.”
The “poster child” for the target-and-control approach is a new leukemia drug called Gleevec, which targets an abnormal cell signaling pathway called the bcr-abl protein signaling receptor. This abnormality causes the pathway to lose its ability to signal cell growth. The drug blocks this specific receptor and allows cells to behave normally. This treatment approach does not kill cells; it goes after a molecular defect.
“Restoring natural processes to cells is an attractive idea a paradigm change to which our research is contributing,” says Merrill, the Smithgall Chair in Molecular Cell Biology, whose expertise is in cell signaling.
He and several dozen multidisciplinary experts at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta are investigating target-and-control strategies on basic and applied research fronts. Funded locally by the Georgia Cancer Coalition and nationally by such organizations as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the researchers are finding clues and engineering solutions to fight the war that cancer wages against humans.
photo by Gary Meek
Ph.D. student Sylvia Shadinger works with Regents Professor Jim Powers’ research team to design and synthesize small-molecule inhibitors for five classes of proteases. One of their primary research interests relates to the design and synthesis of inhibitors for cysteine proteases, which include the papain family. Papain proteases are characterized by their role in digesting proteins. (300-dpi JPEG version - 999k)
Studies include basic cancer biology research, design of new intervention methods, and development of detection and monitoring technologies in bioinformatics, biosensing and bioimaging. Research addresses many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, ovarian and colon.
Cancer researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory contribute expertise in multiple disciplines, including cancer biology, bioinformatics, chemistry and biochemistry, biomedical engineering, radiation biology and nuclear engineering, systems engineering, and electrical and computer engineering. And, as importantly, their efforts are being combined with clinicians working with all types of cancer patients.
“There is a genuine commitment to join forces to combat cancer in new ways,” Merrill says. To support these new initiatives, researchers are applying for federal grants and conducting fundraisers, among other efforts. One recent fundraiser was the first Jimmy V Atlanta Celebrity Golf Classic. It benefited Emory's Winship Cancer Institute, Georgia Tech and The V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Bringing this diverse group together is the Georgia Tech Cancer Research Council, formed by Provost Jean-Lou Chameau in 2002 and chaired by Merrill. Its initial purpose has been to collect information on cancer-related research already under way and find additional studies and/or technologies that could be applied to the field. The council is building a network of researchers at Georgia Tech, Emory and throughout the state. Merrill envisions an international network for the future.
illustration by Pat Kenny, courtesy National Cancer Institute
Shown is an artist's rendition of normal cells on one side and cancer cells on the other showing the characteristic structures of each.
“We want to create better connections for the faculty doing this kind of work,” Merrill says. “We want to spread the word that this is an exciting area of research, and Georgia Tech students and faculty are the people to be doing it.”
The council organized a cancer research symposium in 2003 for Georgia researchers and also developed a course for graduate students and undergraduate seniors to introduce students to cancer biology, clinical practices and new biotechnologies to treat cancer. Other organizations are now creating courses patterned after this one, Merrill notes.
“A multi-disciplinary approach like this is so important because the technology is evolving as the basic scientific discoveries are unfolding,” Merrill says. “We now know the whole human genome. We have the technology to view thousands of genes at once to help us understand protein abnormalities. What used to take a decade to understand, we can now discover in six months. This allows us to make strategic decisions on where to focus our attention.”
Hopes are high for cancer diagnosis and treatment breakthroughs. Seven-year cancer survivor Missy, now an active fundraiser for research through the American Cancer Society, says: “I want women to survive breast cancer and be around to raise their grandbabies like I will be.”
For more information, contact Al Merrill at 404-385-2842 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of cancer survivor Missy’s story and the mind-over-matter battle waged by stomach cancer patient Jeff Saunders, see "A Breast Cancer Survivor's Story" in this issue and A Stomach Cancer Survivor's Story. Also see links to previously published articles on Georgia Tech cancer research projects.
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Last updated: July 7, 2004