By Thomas Guengerich
SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 30, 2008 – Three New Mexico Tech professors presented their cancer research at an international assembly of scientists in Greece in mid-October and one came back with a prestigious award.
Dr. Severine Van slambrouck, the newest faculty member in the chemistry department, was one of 10 presenters to earn the Award for Outstanding Achievement. Her lecture on a new theory about the formation of cancer cells drew a standing-room-only crowd, with more than 100 researchers and oncologists.
She was the only award winner from an American institution. The other award winners hail from Canada, Taiwan, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, South Korea and a collaborative effort from Belgium, Croatia, Italy and Poland.
Tech chemistry professors Dr. Wim Steelant and Dr. Alexander Kornienko also were among the 368 presenters at the 13th World Congress on Advances in Oncology, held jointly with the 11th International Symposium on Molecular Medicine.
Steelant presented his research into non-invasive detection of lung cancer. Kornienko discussed his ongoing research into developing novel cancer drugs using natural products.
Van slambrouck, who earned her doctorate from New Mexico Tech in December 2006, is studying the mechanisms of cancer cell invasion – a complex multi-step process that leads to the spreading of tumors. Scientists generally agree that genetics play a part in the formation of tumors. She hypothesizes that cancerous malignancy – or the spreading of cancer from a tumor to other parts of the body – results from a chaotic reordering of molecules in the cell membrane and is not necessarily linked to genetics.
“It’s not all about genetics,” she said. “It’s a complex interplay between proteins and lipids in the cell membrane. The correlation between an altered gene and the invasive behavior of cancer cells isn’t always there. ... We want to find what exactly is responsible for that behavior and thus the spreading of tumors.”
A significant difference between benign and malignant cancer cells is the aberrant clustering of molecules in the outer membrane. Inside the cell, more molecules cluster together, activating a downstream pathway that leads to cancer cell invasion, she said.
“I’m investigating how cells become invasive,” she said. “I’m talking about: what is responsible for these pathways to become activated.”
Dr. Wim Steelant, chemistry department chair, said Van slambrouck’s work is groundbreaking work. Many researchers were interested in hearing her presentation, partly because Van slambrouck is the only researcher examining this model.
“This hypothesis is shaking the oncology world,” Steelant said. “Most researchers in the past have looked at a gene that overexpresses, meaning it’s more present. In gene therapy, they look at one alteration.”
By examining cancer progression models, Van slambrouck has identified a series of alterations in cancer cells.
“A whole bunch of things are changing at the molecular level,” she said. “We want to figure out completely what’s going on in this model.”
In her abstract, Van slambrouck wrote, “Cancer cell invasion is a highly complex and multistep process, that is characterized by altered expression levels of cell adhesion molecules and secretion of proteolytic enzymes, together with changes in expression or activities of a variety of cellular proteins in multiple branching signaling pathways.”
In other words, alterations in a cell membrane seem to precede a complex, cascading series of alterations inside a cell, leading to the invasive behavior of cancer cells. She has found that the molecular changes are similar in three different types of cancer – breast, colon and prostate cancer.
“We keep seeing the same thing in different types of cancer,” she said.
Van slambrouck has been studying the chemistry of cancer since her days as a student. She joined the Tech faculty as a research professor in January 2008. She uses confocal microscopy and fluorescent microscopy to examine cancer cells. From her investigations, she put together two elaborate posters to illustrate her full lecture at the conference.
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