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Molecular biologist Christopher Beh says 90 per cent of deaths from solid cancer tumours are caused by the metastatic release of cancer cells into the body.

Study aims to reorient lost cells

June 24, 2010

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Like travellers, cells can get lost without a compass. That’s particularly bad news in the case of cancer cells.

Christopher Beh, an SFU molecular biologist, says the metastatic release of cancer cells into the body causes 90 per cent of deaths from solid tumours.

"Our research focuses on one of the key events in cancer-cell release from solid tumours, which involves the loss of cell orientation within a tissue," says Beh, who’ll use a $338,000 grant from the B.C. Cancer Agency to further his work.

"All cells have an internal compass that directs and orients them with respect to neighbouring cells," explains Beh. "When the compass becomes subverted in a cancer cell, that cell is free to disperse and invade other tissues."

The mechanism for maintaining cellular orientation is almost the same whether it’s a human or a lowly yeast cell, Beh notes.

"Given the unprecedented DNA recombinant technology that can be exploited in yeast, we’re mapping out a blueprint for how a cell’s sense of direction is maintained.

"That can be used to identify corresponding therapeutic targets in humans for the treatment and prevention of tumour metastasis."

Beh is one of a dozen B.C. researchers to share $5 million in new research funding from the B.C. Cancer Agency.

Among others, SFU colleague Steven Jones will receive $408,000 towards his research. Using genetic sequencing techniques, his team hopes to generate the first comprehensive description of molecular changes found in thyroid cancers.

Jones’ team will use tissue samples taken from surgery patients to identify differences between malignant and benign thyroid tumours, with the goal of improving diagnostic techniques and helping to develop more targeted treatments.

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