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Vanderbilt, GE unite to study colon tumor development

Jan. 31, 2013, 9:50 AM

Vanderbilt University has partnered with GE Global Research in Niskayuna, N.Y., the technology development arm of the General Electric Company, to better define — at the cellular level — how colon tumors form and develop.

The research, supported by a five-year, $3.75 million grant from the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will test GE’s cancer mapping technology, an automated platform that can probe and analyze up to 60 different disease markers, including proteins and messenger RNAs, in a single tissue sample.

The researchers, led by GE scientists Michael Gerdes, Ph.D. and Kashan Shaikh, Ph.D., and by Robert Coffey, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research at Vanderbilt, will explore how intestinal stem cells of the colon contribute to tumor formation and progression, and the signaling pathways associated with the disease.

GE scientists have developed novel technology that allows a single tissue section from a sample that is removed during surgery to be imaged for “biosignatures,” including expression of dozens of proteins and nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), without destroying the integrity of the sample.

The ability to study dozens of protein markers at one time provides a more complete picture of what’s happening with the cancer, the researchers explained. Current cancer diagnosis and therapy decisions are based on studying tumors under the microscope and, in some cases, the expression of only one or two disease markers as determined by immunofluorescence.

“With GE’s cancer mapping technology, we’re enabling cancer to be viewed in ways it couldn’t previously be seen such as with the activation of different signaling pathways in specific cells,” said Gerdes, lead scientist at GE Global Research. “With unprecedented views we hope will come unprecedented insights that tell us more about how cancer forms, how it progresses, and most importantly, how to defeat it.”

Investigators in the Vanderbilt Epithelial Biology Center, which Coffey directs, will collaborate in the testing of GE’s cancer mapping technology.

Coffey’s lab recently reported the discovery of a new population of relatively quiescent (inactive) intestinal stem cells. These cells express a protein called Lrig1 that acts as a tumor suppressor.

This discovery has “given us an entrée to develop some very robust models of colon cancer,” Coffey said.

The GE-Vanderbilt project is part of a new NIH-funded Single Cell Analysis Program, which aims to “understand what makes individual cells unique and to pave the way for medical treatments that are based on disease mechanisms at the cellular level,” according to the NIH.

The research is supported by NIH grant 1R01 CA174377, and through the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in gastrointestinal cancer, which Coffey directs and which focuses on colorectal cancer.

The GI SPORE recently received a third round of funding (2P50 CA095103) from the National Cancer Institute, part of the NIH.

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