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Princeton, CINJ Partner on Cancer Studies

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Princeton University and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey will use microarray and mass spectrometry technologies to discover more about what enables cancer tumor cells to become resistant to some treatments by becoming dormant and self-cannibalizing to survive periods of stress.

The project is funded with a $1 million Challenge Grant from the National Institutes of Health under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and it is part of an ongoing research partnership between Princeton and CINJ, which is a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center, Princeton said Thursday.

"We want to know: What role is this self-cannibalization playing in the middle of a tumor?" Princeton Assistant Professor Hilary Collier said in a statement. "To treat cancer, it may be that you want to get rid of this ability in tumor cells, so we're searching for inducers and inhibitors of this process."

The studies will be wide-ranging, and will include using DNA microarray analysis to identify the gene expression changes that underlie metabolic alterations, as well as mass spectrometry techniques to identify altered metabolic states by quantifying concentrations of metabolites and observing their changes over time.

Alterations in the metabolism of cancer cells enable them to proliferate and grow rapidly, but they also are able to modify their metabolic functioning when they are under stress, and even stop proliferating and cannibalize themselves through a process called autophagy. Such stresses include chemotherapies, as well as deprivation of oxygen or nutrients.

"This ingenious property allows these cancer cells to tolerate enormous amounts of stress," explained Eileen White, associate director for basic science at CINJ.

"If they're starving or stressed, they eat themselves and hunker down until the stress is removed. Then, as soon as the stress is gone, they grow back, often killing the patient. If we can understand this process and exploit if for cancer therapy, we may develop new ways to kill the cancer cells without killing the normal cells," said White.

This research complements clinical trials at CINJ that are investigating ways to modulate autophagy in cancer cells, including one study that is using an anti-malaria drug with autophagy-blocking properties added to a colon cancer treatment in order to see if it will increase the number of cancers that go into remission or boost the length of remission.