Mar 01, 2020 8:00 AM


Adriana Rodriguez, PhD student, and Jay Gertz, PhD
Adriana Rodriguez, PhD student, and Jay Gertz, PhD

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“To understand cancer from its beginnings.” This phrase is a key component of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) mission. By better understanding cancer in its earliest stages—and a deeper knowledge of healthy cell behavior—we shed light on the precursors of cancer and what allows a cancer to grow. Read just a few highlights of noteworthy recent studies at HCI that advance our quest to understand cancer from its beginnings and to use that information in the creation and improvement of new cancer treatments.

Progress in Potential New Lung Cancer Treatment

The journal Clinical Cancer Research published findings from the Oliver Lab that outline new insights into potential treatment options for MYC-driven tumors, a subtype of small-cell lung cancer. MYC is a protein that drives cell proliferation, growth, death, and self-renewal.

“We seek to understand the vulnerabilities in cancer that can become a target for treatment. We found this possibility in small-cell lung cancers with the protein MYC. We are now designing clinical trials based on our findings,” Oliver says.

On cancer research as a career, Oliver explains, “I had multiple family members with cancer. I became interested in lung cancer because it’s a highly prevalent type of cancer that is relatively under-funded and under-studied, largely due to stigmas associated with smoking,” Oliver says. “However, many people who never smoke develop lung cancer, and our findings are often relevant to many types of cancer. So the principles and concepts we are uncovering are broadly applicable.”

Trudy Oliver, PhD
Associate Professor
Oncological Sciences
Visit the Oliver Lab page

Personalizing Treatment in Breast Cancers

The Varley Lab outlined a potential new clinical test for patients with triple-negative breast cancer, published in the journal Cancer Research.

“There are currently no clinical tests to guide treatment decisions for these patients,” Varley explains. “They all receive aggressive treatment, which can lead to long-term heart and nerve problems. We are developing a test that can be used to personalize decisions.”

This approach is important, Varley explains. “Every breast tumor is unique, and every cancer patient responds to treatment differently. We search for genomic patterns shared across subsets of patients with similar tumor types or treatment responses. We hope the unique genomic fingerprints of patients’ tumors will tell us precisely which treatment will work best for each of them.”

The Varley Lab is building on this work. They aim to test it in clinical trials and assess if it can apply to other cancers. This work is possible, she says, because of the highly collaborative environment at HCI.

Katherine (K-T) Varley, PhD
Assistant Professor
Oncological Sciences
Visit the Varley Lab page

New Insights into Endometrial Cancer

The Gertz Lab has a longstanding interest in cancers of the female reproductive system. They study estrogen, a hormone that plays a major role in both a healthy or diseased uterus. One study, published in Genome Research, evaluated what happens to the estrogen receptor when cancer arises.

“While mutations in estrogen receptor make it constantly active, it also displays some unexpected behaviors. It causes genes to turn on that are not normally controlled by estrogen receptor,” Gertz explains. “We’re using our findings to explore new treatments that may be effective against uterine tumors with estrogen receptor mutations.”

When asked what motivates his work, Gertz says, “There has been tremendous progress in cancer treatment and care. Unfortunately, uterine cancer has lagged behind and is the only common cancer with worse outcomes today than 40 years ago. My lab is motivated to help women with uterine cancer by better understanding the disease in a quest for more effective treatments.”

Jay Gertz, PhD
Assistant Professor
Oncological Sciences
Visit the Gertz Lab page

Understanding Drug Resistance in Cancer

A significant obstacle in cancer treatment is when it resists the powerful drugs intended to combat it. The Myers Lab outlined new findings in the journal Nature of a potential “Achilles’ heel” of a protein called Smoothened and its role in helping cancer spread. The hope is to develop drugs that cancer cannot circumvent.

“Our work helps us understand the molecular basis for Smoothened activation. We think we can develop more effective strategies when this is a factor in cancer,” Myers says. This work may offer new options for skin and brain cancer patients taking Smoothened inhibitors. The Myers Lab hopes to apply these approaches to other drug targets, which could help a range of cancers.

“I am driven by a curiosity to understand the principles that underlie tissue and organ development, and how errors in this process lead to cancer,” Myers says of his work. “The strong basic science culture at HCI, combined with clinical expertise and access to patient samples, enables my lab’s research program to thrive.”

Ben Myers, PhD
Assistant Professor
Oncological Sciences
Visit the Myers Lab page

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Cancer touches all of us.

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