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letter from the director
by Alan Saltiel
Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute
In the pursuit of the next discovery, the next publication and the next grant, we often become overly focused on uncovering the small truths that seem to confound us, while forgetting the impact our work can have on real people facing much more difficult challenges. I was recently reminded in a stark and indelible way of the potential significance of our efforts, and how important it is for us to persist in the face of uncertainty, frustration and failure.
Michael undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma
Over the past two and a half years I've had the sad misfortune to watch as the son of very close friends struggled with and finally succumbed to neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that strikes about 650 children a year and is rarely cured. Michael was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma at 4 1/2 and passed away two weeks after his seventh birthday, after having undergone 20 rounds of chemotherapy, over 50 radiation treatments, experimental treatments in clinical trials, a bone marrow transplant and many surgeries, often traveling to hospitals throughout the country, including U-M.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million new cases of invasive cancer will be diagnosed this year. Despite the significant progress in our understanding and treatment of the disease, many types of cancer remain incurable, especially those that strike children, and we still don't fully grasp what combinations of genetics and environment cause cancer to manifest and spread. The brutal mystery of cancer rivets scientists from a wide range of fields, and the urgency around cancer research has fueled much of our work.
Examining cancer from every angle
Despite the prevalence of cancer, a fundamental understanding of how cancer cells mutate from healthy cells, the relationship between environmental triggers and DNA in developing cancer, and how cancer cells invade healthy tissues remains largely unknown.
Interdisciplinary approaches to illuminating the way cancer works-and how it might be stopped
Researchers at the LSI ask fundamental questions about cancer: How are the cells produced? What allows them to spread throughout tissue in the body? Why don't cancer cells die like healthy cells do? And what new medicines on the horizon could stop the disease?
While other parts of U-M--including the Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is one of 41 National Cancer Institute-designated "comprehensive" centers (see Q&A with director Dr. Max Wicha in this issue)--treat patients and develop innovative treatments based on research, scientists at the LSI ask challenging and provocative questions about cells and how they work to illuminate key processes that can go wrong. LSI researchers follow the science--which leads them to some surprising places.
Here are some highlights of recent cancer-related research by scientists in the LSI:
Chronic inflammation's role in cancer
A recent paper by leading cancer researcher and LSI faculty member Stephen Weiss included insights into chronic inflammation, particularly as it relates to obesity, atherosclerosis and other conditions, and pointed to new areas of research examining the role that same enzyme--a membrane-anchored protease called MT1-MMP--plays in cancer cells.Read the press release
Using nature's chemical factories to manufacture powerful cancer drugs
David Sherman and Janet Smith have a long-term collaboration that pairs Sherman's analysis of enzymes involved in natural product assembly with Smith's X-ray crystallography techniques to understand the biochemical machines involved in making potential drugs, including some with actions against cancer and infectious diseases. Recently, their work took a big step forward when another LSI faculty member, Georgios Skiniotis, used cryo-EM to further understand the molecules. Together, they have started to visualized the molecular "assembly lines" that microscopic organisms use to produce potent drug-like molecules-enabling microbial technology that could be harnessed to make future medicines.
A better bone-marrow transplant
In lymphoma and leukemia patients like those treated by
Dr. Ivan Maillard
Ivan Maillard, M.D./Ph.D., bone marrow transplants can cure otherwise untreatable cancers. But the procedure comes with a serious risk: The donor's immune cells can see the recipient's body as a foreign entity and fight it, a gravely serious complication called graft-versus-host disease.
Maillard's lab found a compound that can temporarily disable the "attack" signal in immune cells. If approved for human use, the therapy could make bone marrow transplant a much safer and more predictable treatment for leukemias and lymphomas. A paper explaining Maillard's discovery is under review.
|Q&A with dr. max wicha|
U-M on the cancer map
Max Wicha, director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, discusses what's on the horizon for cancer research and why basic science is fundamental to future treatments.
Dr. Max Wicha
Dr. Wicha is nationally known for his research in the field of breast oncology, particularly the study of how breast cancer cells grow and metastasize. His lab was part of the team that first discovered stem cells in breast cancer, the first described in any human solid tumor.
Earlier this month, U-M announced the new Translational Oncology Program, designed to speed the translation of scientific research into clinical trials and new treatment opportunities for cancer patients.
We spoke to Dr. Wicha about the multiple ways of approaching the study of cancer, the most promising research on the horizon and common misunderstandings of the disease.
How do research scientists study cancer?
Cancer requires a multidisciplinary approach. We at the Cancer Center have a variety of organized groups working around different types of cancers and different methods (cancer genetics, immunology, therapeutics, etc.) When you work in teams, you do much better.
How does the basic research at the LSI relate to developing treatment for cancer?
The LSI has a large percentage of scientists doing cancer-related work, and is a tremendous resource for basic biology of the cell. LSI can provide the basic underpinning of biological knowledge.
Read the Q&A
|Skiniotis receives PECASE award
|Georgios Skiniotis |
Georgios Skiniotis, faculty member at the LSI and assistant professor in biological chemistry at U-M Medical School, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their careers.
Read the press release
|President Barack Obama addresses 2011 PECASE recipients in the East Room of the White House, July 31, 2012. Skiniotis is in the third row from the bottom, second from left. |
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
|Ginsburg honored for work as hematologist and geneticist |
Dr. David Ginsburg will receive the 2012 Henry M. Stratton Medal from the American Society of Hematology (ASH) for his accomplishments in the fields of thrombosis and blood cell immunology.
Dr. David Ginsburg
The prize honors senior investigators whose contributions to hematology are well-recognized and have taken place over a period of several years. Dr. Ginsburg will receive the 2012 Stratton Medal for Basic Research for his many seminal scientific contributions in characterizing the molecular and genetic basis of inherited bleeding and clotting disorder.
Dr. Ginsburg is the James V. Neel Distinguished University Professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well as a faculty member in the LSI.
ABOUT THE LIFE SCIENCES INSTITUTE
At the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute (LSI) a team of world-class faculty and works together to solve fundamental problems in human health. Opened in 2003, the LSI is a hub for collaborative biomedical discovery at the University of Michigan.