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$11.5 Million NIH Center Grant Funds Novel Cancer Stem Cell Research at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute

Written by Methodist Hospital, Houston on 19 February 2010.

The Methodist Hospital Research Institute was awarded an $11.5 million Center Grant by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) today to study the best way to attack deadly cancer stem cells to enhance treatments for breast cancer. Other members of the team include Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“Targeting cancer stem cells, rather than cancer cells, is a completely new strategy for treating cancer,” said Dr. Stephen Wong, director of the Center for Bioengineering and Informatics at The Methodist Hospital Research Institute and principal investigator for the grant study. “By attacking the cancer stem cell, we hope to eliminate cancer’s ability to grow, recur or metastasize.”

The NIH grant will enable Wong’s team to model breast cancer stem cells – or see what they look like and how they act – using advanced genetic, imaging and computational modeling techniques. Wong said once the cells are modeled in the lab and in real environments, the team will be able to predict the behavior of cancer stem cells, enabling them to test drugs that might kill the cells or prevent the cells from duplicating and metastasizing.

Cancer stem cells, also called tumor initiating cells, have the ability to resist drugs, become cancer cells, and split into a cancer cell and another stem cell. Traditional cancer treatments use chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, but are not optimized to kill the stem cell.

“Targeting the cancer stem cell is the new horizon for cancer research,” Wong said. “We have put together a very strong team of top experts in the field. We’re able to combine that talent with the technology at our disposal at Methodist, Baylor, and UT. This is a formidable combination that has potential to achieve real breakthroughs in cancer research. It’s great to now have the backing of the NIH to help us move ahead.”

Wong’s team will build a modeling platform for investigation of breast cancer, with special emphasis on the role of tumor-initiating cells (TIC), or cancer stem cells. This platform will consist of two closely related components: biological experiments and mathematical computational modeling.
“Further, our systems biology approach will allow us to evaluate responses to experimental therapies that may restrain or kill tumor initiating cells in a manner not possible before,” Wong said.

The biological component will use new experimental imaging methods to identify, localize, purify and characterize the cancer stem cells. Tumor initiating cells cannot be seen using traditional imaging techniques. Methodist has invested in high resolution microcopy that can see at nanometer, rather than millimeter resolution, including a confocal laser scanning microscope, a Coherent anti-Stokes Raman Scattering (CARS) microscope, and an in vivo multi-photon laser scanning microscope. Additional protocols will be designed to understand the stem cell’s ability to metastasize, including spatial localization and movement, and specific changes in gene expression and cellular signaling of breast cancer stem cells.

For the mathematical modeling component, the team will develop bioinformatics and bio-imaging models to integrate and analyze the data generated from biological experiments. They will use the information obtained from data analysis and biological knowledge to build computer-based models to mimic the cells’ behavior and drug treatment response.

Besides providing a basic framework for understanding breast cancer stem cell evolution, the models will allow us to predict how the natural process of cancer development will play out in various circumstances, Wong said. The ultimate goal is better, more effective treatment for eliminating breast cancer in our patients.

For more information on The Methodist Hospital Research Institute, see www.methodistresearch.com. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MethodistHosp and Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/methodisthospital.

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