January 19, 2007

Investigators set sights on area surrounding tumors

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Investigators set sights on area surrounding tumors

Like a seed needs soil to grow and flourish, a tumor relies on its environment to grow and spread in the body — something the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center will be exploring more closely with the help of a grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for $1.3 million a year over the next five years.

The grant reflects a new wave of interest and attention to the microenvironment of a tumor.

“We had been looking specifically at what was inside the cancer cell — we were really focused on the seed and we forgot about the soil,” said Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., chair of Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt-Ingram.

“The microenvironment can tell the cancer cells to behave normally. We think there's incredible opportunity for targeting the microenvironment and potentially finding new treatment options.”

The NCI grant will allow Vanderbilt-Ingram to become a key player in a new network of investigators looking at the microenvironment and researching different areas related to the soil where the tumor sets up camp.

Members of the network will meet twice a year to share discoveries.

Other groups in the network include Harvard-MIT, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Columbia University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, the Albert Einstein Cancer Center, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Vanderbilt-Ingram will also work closely with a group from Dana Farber as part of the project.

Vanderbilt's participation will involve three research projects zeroing in on a molecule called TGF-beta that Matrisian said could prove to be the key to host-tumor interactions.

The first project, led by Harold Moses, M.D., director emeritus of Vanderbilt-Ingram, is a breast cancer study aimed at uncovering the TGF-beta response to the environment.

“Manipulating the TGF-beta response in the normal cells makes the tumor much worse than manipulating this molecule in the tumor cells itself,” said Matrisian, again adding to the theory behind the importance of the environment hosting the tumor.

The second project will be led by Simon Hayward, Ph.D., and Neil Bhowmick, Ph.D., and will focus on prostate cancer. The study will involve taking prostate cancer cells and normal cells and putting them together to manipulate and influence the genes in the tumor.

The third project, led by Gregory Mundy, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Bone Biology, will spotlight bone metastasis.

“Breast and prostate cancer both go to the bone,” said Matrisian. “Tumor cells tell the bone cells to degrade the bone. TGF-beta in the bone gets released and makes the tumor cells grow and be worse.

“We want to know why this is happening, how TGF-beta is doing this and what is downstream from the effect.”

Matrisian said she believes Vanderbilt-Ingram's projects were funded, in part, because of the supporting technology available here.