Academics & Research

Divining the Secrets of Cancer Cells

In a new campus lab, Dr. Stacey Raimondi and her student researchers work to identify the genes and proteins that turn less invasive cancers into aggressive ones.

Stacey Raimondi is looking for clues to the molecular mechanisms of breast cancer—clues that might ultimately yield ways to shut down the most aggressive and invasive kinds of cancer.

Given the seriousness of her enterprise, students new to Raimondi’s research laboratory sometimes are taken aback when they see how enthused she gets about the rapid growth of cancer cells in her culture lab. “I have to tell them, ‘That’s right, we’re trying to grow some really nasty cancer in here,’” says Raimondi, an assistant professor of biology. “Those cancer cells are going to tell us all kinds of interesting things.”

Those cancer cells live in a tissue-cell incubator in Raimondi’s new lab, a compact, white, sterile space off a corridor in the basement of the Schaible Science Center. Showing a visitor around one afternoon, Raimondi stopped to pull a pair of flasks from an incubator. It was time for her to check up on the cancer cells. Peering into a microscope, she seemed pleased by what she saw. “Oh, you are very happy,” she said, not quite under her breath.

She saw that the cells were defining themselves by taking on one of two shapes. Some were rounded and globular. Others had stretched into a longish, spindle-like shape: a telltale sign of cancer poised to grow aggressively.

Understanding the molecular differences between the two kinds of cells would help answer a central question of Raimondi’s research: What genes and proteins trigger aggressive growth in cancer cells, turning less invasive cancers into more invasive ones? The consequences could hardly be more crucial. The five-year survival rate for patients with localized breast cancer is 98 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. Once the cancer has metastasized, the survival rate drops to 23 percent.

 “If we find the proteins that make those circular cells stretch—that make the cancer more invasive—we’ve learned something very important clinically,” says Raimondi. “If we can figure out what makes cancer worse, then removing that factor should make it better, or easier to treat.”

Raimondi’s investigation is one of an increasing number of studies that examine genetic pathways in cancer cells for information that could point toward new treatment strategies. Scientists know that aberrations in the way genes are spliced inside cancer cells affect the way DNA and RNA translate into proteins in those cells. Raimondi explains that one aberrantly spliced gene—called DNMT3B7—appears in almost every kind of cancer cell, but is not found in normal cells.  

In 2007, while working as a visiting scientist at the University of Chicago, Raimondi noticed that researchers trying to express that gene in cells were inadvertently producing unexpected changes in the cells. Under the microscope, she could see the cells changing shapes in a way that suggested that the cells were changing their phenotype.

 “I think you just made some very aggressive cancer cells,” Raimondi told her colleagues.

She has been pursuing the connection between aberrantly spliced genes and the progression of tumors ever since. She wants to know if genes like DNMT3B7 are altering cellular signaling pathways in breast cancer—in effect, triggering tumor progression. “The goal,” she says, “is to determine the mechanisms and pathways that promote tumor progression with the hope of turning them off in aggressive cells.”

Raimondi’s efforts received a big boost last summer with the arrival on campus of a new tissue culture facility that allows her to maintain her own inventory of live cancer cells. The new lab changes nearly everything about the way Raimondi does her work. She had previously relied on an agreement with the University of Chicago to provide materials for her research. The new setup, she said, gives her more control over the pace of her experiments.

It also makes it easier for the professor to involve undergraduates in her work, providing them with prized research experiences. This year, five students are working with Raimondi on various aspects of her investigation. Dan Kelpsch, a junior who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer biology, says his experiences in Elmhurst’s new facility give him an edge in preparing for his graduate work. “I’m learning a lot of the techniques and tricks of the trade,” he says. “Not all undergraduates have access to that kind of learning, especially at larger universities.”   

 “Research really is imperative for students these days,” Raimondi observes. “If they don’t have research experience, they won’t be competitive for the best graduate programs and medical schools. This lab gives our students the chance to learn more advanced techniques, and that gives them an edge.” What’s more, there’s no substitute for working with live cells. “We can lecture about it, but if we don’t give students experience with live cells, they’re only getting part of the picture.” As they search for cures for cancer, today’s researchers, and tomorrow’s, need to see the whole picture.

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