Take 1

Flagging Cancer Cells

Barry L. Karger, the James L. Waters Chair in Analytical Chemistry and director of Northeastern’s Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis.
Problem: Predicting cancer recurrence.
Solution:Finding a better way to recognize the clues the genes in cancer cells generate.

Karger’s team is working with pathologists at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to develop technologies that analyze tissue samples from breast-cancer patients. They’re looking for markers, or signatures, that could be used to predict which patients are likely to have a recurrence of the disease. 

“Our analytical approach combines proteomics, which examines a cell’s proteins, with genomics, the study of a cell’s genes,” explains Karger. The researchers are now able to establish a network of potentially relevant genes that’s more extensive than networks established from any of these “omics” alone.

By looking at such combined gene profiles from more than 600 estrogen-receptor positive-breast-cancer patients, the researchers found in three separate studies of published data that there was a significant statistical correlation between biomarkers identified by their gene network and the patients whose cancer came back.

“The findings demonstrate that our method has real potential—not just for prognosis, but also for diagnosing cancer and ultimately pinpointing the right medication or treatment,” he adds. 

By better understanding cancer and its cellular linkages, Karger and his colleagues hope to improve diagnostic tools and medicines and to play a role in the future of personalized medicine and care.

Take 2

Considering Quality of Life

Ann Marie Flores, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, Bouvé College of Health Sciences
Problem: Quality of life after a cancer diagnosis.
Solution: Incorporating physical therapy “at ground zero” as part of cancer treatment. 

Oncology researchers are now viewing cancer as a chronic disease for certain tumor types, says Flores. 

Earlier cancer detection has been instrumental in prolonging life. The U.S. has the largest number of cancer survivors in the world, according to the American Cancer Society, and many people can live well after a cancer diagnosis. Developing physical-therapy interventions may speed up recovery, says Flores, and it’s a way to reduce the impact of cancer treatment on physical and functional well-being and improve quality of life.

“I look at cancer survivorship not from a fitness perspective but from a medical rehabilitation perspective, much like we would for people recovering from stroke, spinal-cord injury, or trauma,” she says. “I research the timing of the intervention and the components that are needed at the right time, incorporating rehabilitation as part of the cancer treatment planning process at ground zero.” 

Flores also investigates health disparities and health inequities in cancer survivorship in relation to rehabilitation and whether concerns for cancer rehabilitation differ by social determinants and other medical issues.  

Take 3

Targeting Resistance

Mansoor Amiji, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Pharmacy, Bouvé College of Health Sciences.
Problem: Resistance to chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer.
Solution: Target aggressive tumor cells more effectively. 

Cancer, currently in second place, will soon overtake heart disease as the most lethal disease in the U.S., says Amiji.

Resistance to chemotherapy, which most patients develop over time, is the part of the problem Amiji and his colleagues are tackling. “Cancer cells grow in a harsh, inhospitable environment, due to decreased blood supply, but they evolve and become difficult to kill,” he says. 

The solution? Targeting drugs to cancer cells only, while avoiding normal cells. The team’s nanococktail stays longer at the tumor site, tames the aggressive cells, and betters the odds that they will die.

Another approach eliminates the energy that fuels cancer cells. “We’ve found that inhibiting sugar metabolism by tumor cells improves their sensitivity to drugs,” says Amiji. “We combine a glucose metabolism inhibitor with a regular chemotherapy drug in a nanoparticle to kill the resistant tumor with a much lower concentration of the drug.”

The National Cancer Institute has funded Amiji’s nanotechnology efforts since 2004, and Nemucorp Medical Innovation has licensed his patent. Human studies are expected in the near future.