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How I fight cancer: a few images from the lab

15 August 2012

I am frequently asked what I work on, and while I often give a brief description similar to what I put in my research section on this site, this week I concluded a set of experiments that (among other things) succinctly show what I work on with pictures:

Image: Seen here is an in vitro surrogate to study cancer metastasis. Cancer cells lacking the caspase-8 enzyme grow well in foreign environments.

To the right are colonies of cancer cells growing in soft agar, that has a consistency of jello. However, unlike jello (which is made mostly of collagen) soft agar is made mostly of a carbohydrate that is not present in our bodies. Most cells have serious problems growing in this type of suspended, foreign environment. Not cancer cells. The deadliest cancer cells that from solid tumors (breast, ovarian, neuroblastoma, skin, etc) can spread, colonize, and grow in vital organs of cancer patients, which is actually what causes most complications and deaths from the disease: metastasis.

Image: The same cancer cells, but with functioning caspase-8 enzyme. Much less colonies of metastasis develop.

These deadly cancer cells can grow in what is effectively a foreign environment. Cells are able to sense their surroundings and can tell when they are in the wrong spot. Under most conditions, cells that wind up in the wrong spot (a foreign environment) will undergo cellular harakiri: Apoptosis.

Cancer cells frequently find ways to get around this. I study an enzyme (caspase-8) that can prevent the growth of cancer cells in foreign environments and has the ability to stop the most deadly aspect of cancer: metastasis.

I am working to find other enzymes and cellular circuits that affect the caspase-8 enzyme, and by extension: cancer metastasis, the most deadly and miserable aspect facing cancer patients.


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