Until now, cancer research has largely focused on targeting specific genes or proteins involved with cell division and developing drugs for those targets. UVA’s new center will go deeper, focusing on how genes and proteins interact with each other within organelles, the “little organs” such as mitochondria that reside within cells and perform specialized functions. By understanding the interactions and processes of organelles as a network, UVA researchers plan to identify different ways to think about therapies that can disrupt tumor growth.
“So far, cancer researchers have done a good job assembling the ‘parts list’ involved in cancer,” said Kevin Janes, the John Marshall Money Professor of Biomedical Engineering at UVA Engineering and co-director of the center. “Rather than approaching cancer as a parts problem, we hope to discover how cell parts work together in a system when it comes to cancer.”
“We hope to reframe how all the parts of a cancer cell work together by organizing the questions around organelles,” said Matthew J. Lazzara, professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering and center co-director. “This new blueprint should provide fresh clues about therapies.”
The National Cancer Institute thinks UVA has the right stuff to make substantial advancements, based on the University’s deep expertise in systems biology, cancer biology and biomedical data sciences.
“We are immensely proud of the team of investigators who developed this grant and eagerly await the important scientific advancements that are certain to occur over the next few years as engineers, cancer biologists and oncologists work together toward unraveling cancer biology,” said Frederick H. Epstein, UVA Engineering’s associate dean for research and the Mac Wade Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
The new research center has many affiliations with the UVA Cancer Center, one of only 53 cancer centers in the country the National Cancer Institute has designated as comprehensive. The designation recognizes elite cancer centers with the most rigorous standards for innovative research and leading-edge clinical trials.
“An essential feature of a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center is the ability to foster team science that is interdisciplinary in nature,” said Dr. Thomas P. Loughran Jr., director of the UVA Cancer Center. “The new research center is a great example of such success that led to UVA’s designation.”
Gaining New Views at the Perfect Zoom Setting
“The sweet spot for today’s cancer systems biology lies within cells – it’s at the perfect zoom setting for finding clues about complex pathways and networks,” Janes said.
“Cancer research focused on all genes, all proteins or all cells is very dense – so dense that its meaning gets lost in the raw information, even with the aid of computers and the most advanced artificial intelligence methods,” he continued. “We need to examine this information at a scale where it naturally organizes – the organelles that make up each cell.”
Lazzara said fundamentally new perspectives are needed to advance basic science research in cancer. “Ultimately, new scientific understanding translates into improved therapies,” he said. “We feel an urgency, and even a responsibility, to look at the problem in new ways.”
At the highest level, the aim of the center is understanding how cancer adapts to the stress of oncogenes – genes that endow cells with the ability to form tumors – in order to proceed to full-blown cancer, Lazzara said.