Turning Renegade Cancer Cells to an Advantage

Kuhn Lab

 Ben Hsieh and Doug Curry scan a slide

Peter Kuhn is acutely aware of the translational nature of his research. At every step along the way – from experiment design to data interpretation – his team’s clinicians keep in mind potential applications for patients.

In one project, the team is currently looking at the pathology and morphology of tumor cells that have broken off the primary tumor.

“This could have a variety of clinical impacts,” Kuhn explains, “For instance, take a lung cancer patient – in order to get a biopsy of the lung tumor he has to have a foot-long needle stuck into his rib cage.” Not only painful, this procedure doesn’t always yield the necessary cell samples. However, Kuhn’s research may pave the way to using tumor cells in the blood stream instead to track the tumor over time.

Kuhn’s team is highly interdisciplinary, with clinical pathologists working alongside lab-based cell biologists. Kuhn explains that this was not simply an exercise in scientific diversity, but an absolute necessity to the project. “Collaboration is not just helpful, it is mission critical. It is critical in defining the initial question we are going after, it is critical in designing an experiment, and then it is critical in interpreting the data afterwards. We have all the necessary competencies sitting around the table.”

When not sitting around a table together, the team’s research is accelerated by a custom application designed for them by Microsoft. The application, called The Collaborative Molecular Environment, allows researchers to share and analyze data in a highly efficient manner, including attaching comments to specific sites of three-dimensional models.

Next, Kuhn’s team will focus on characterizing these cells at the molecular level – research that will be important both for scientific knowledge and for clinical application. Understanding the metastatic potential of these cells – the ability of these break-away cells to take hold and root themselves elsewhere in the body – is a key and under-developed area of research where Kuhn believes his project can make a significant contribution.

Clinically, a better understanding of the molecular character of these tumor cells could bring huge advances by allowing doctors to tailor a patient’s therapy in critical new ways. For instance, approximately 15-20% of breast cancers have an amplification of the HER2/neu gene or a high expression of its protein product – characteristics that increase the chances of disease recurrence. Patients who test positive for the HER2/neu marker are often treated with drugs to mitigate the protein’s impact, while patients who test negative are not. However, researchers have found that a small group of cancers can change status from negative to positive. Kuhn’s work on the molecular structure of tumor cells could one day allow doctors to tell from a blood sample whether a patient has a cancer with this ability to morph from HER2/neu negative to positive.

Translational research like Peter Kuhn’s gets at the heart of Scripps Research’s mission – to enhance understanding of basic science with the goal of accelerating clinical advances. Your support helps ensure that Scripps Research continues to power critical medical discoveries forward.

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