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In Search of Peace in the War on Breast Cancer

Biomedical engineering researchers say training cancer cells to behave normally may be a better approach than killing them. Learn more.

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This is the first story in the yearlong series “In Pursuit of Health,” covering medical news and research happening across the university.

breast cancer cells under a microscope

Breast cancer cells under a microscope. [Credit: Ed Uthman] 

Cancer cells, by their very definition, are abnormal. They proliferate faster, consume more resources and go places they’re not supposed to.

A less studied way to keep cells from going down the path of abnormality is to manipulate how they communicate with each other via channels called gap junctions. It’s an area that’s getting attention from the laboratory of Jeanne Stachowiak, assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Gap junctions are protein channels that extend across a cell’s membrane border and connect with gap junctions of other cells. When a cell starts to act up, its neighbors send messages through the gap junctions to rein it in.

Cancer cells, determined to take over the cellular neighborhood, aren’t interested in hearing those messages and thus stop producing gap junctions.

Stachowiak and graduate student Avinash Gadok are using donor cells to make materials that can be injected to restore gap junctions to cancer cells.

“We’re making membranes that are heavily enriched with these junction proteins and delivering them to tumor cells to see if we can reconnect the cells and reestablish their communication pathways with neighboring healthy cells,” Stachowiak said.

Instead of going to war with cancer cells by killing them and quite possibly damaging healthy tissues along the way, the gap junction method is more of a diplomatic solution.

“A better approach than killing tumor cells, if it were possible, would be to just convince them to behave normally,” Stachowiak said. “This idea of normalizing cells has been attractive for a long time but there just haven’t been super effective ways of doing it.”

So far, it seems possible. They’ve had success in experiments with tissue cultures. Now, they want to try normalizing cells with 3-D tissue cultures and in animals. They’re exploring collaborations with Carla Van Den Berg and Hugh Smyth, professors in the College of Pharmacy, to further the research.

Stachowiak started the project with a $25,000 seed grant from Texas 4000, a student group that raises money to fight cancer with an annual bike ride of more than 4,000 miles to Alaska.

Besides delivering messages to the misbehaving cells, the injected gap junction proteins could carry drugs and chemotherapeutics, Stachowiak said. The delivery would be targeted to specific cells, bypassing their membrane barriers, potentially delivering drugs more efficiently than current drug and chemotherapy treatments can.

This is an excerpt of an article published on the Cockrell School of Engineering website. Read “Solving the Breast Cancer Puzzle” to learn about more engineering cancer research.