The University of Texas at Austin
  • In Search of Peace in the War on Breast Cancer

    By Tim Green, Cockrell School of Engineering
    Published: Oct. 21, 2013

    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.

    • Quote 2
      Grant Hogan said on Nov. 20, 2013 at 2:35 a.m.
      It is great to hear such innovation happening on campus! Gap junctions are an exciting part of cancer biology to explore- Dr. Stachowiak is sure doing some fine work. I hope to hear more about this soon.
    • Quote 2
      Linda said on Nov. 18, 2013 at 10:46 p.m.
      Hey Tim, First of all i appreciate for the work what you are carrying on and good luck to Avinash as well. Gap Junction would be really good instead of going through so big trauma. Carla / HUgh hope we get the positive and success in it. And special Thanks to Texax 4000, Best of luck to all of the team, Hope you get success as ultimately it will help to every women, suffering from Cancer.
    • Quote 2
      Ava Baggetta said on Oct. 23, 2013 at 10:08 a.m.
      I am a 1yr. Survivor. I look foward to following you research.
    • Quote 2
      Victor Brook said on Oct. 21, 2013 at 10:47 p.m.
      Wow! The work you are doing is amazing, wonderful and gives hope to so many. God Bless your research and efforts to rid the world of Breast Cancer! Go Pink!
    • Quote 2
      Michele Guzman said on Oct. 21, 2013 at 4:57 p.m.
      This story caught my eye. My mother would have been 70 next Monday, Oct. 28th, had she not died of breast cancer 8 years ago. Ironically, that day is Breast Cancer Awareness Day this year. I applaud you on the work you are doing, and that you started it with a seed grant is terrific. I wish you continued success in your research. We hear a lot about breast cancer "survivors", but this disease is still killing women. We have to keep looking for new treatment.
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