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Building on basics

Tackling Breast Cancer

Understanding how important signals within cells go awry offers clues for new treatments

Cancer ultimately arises when the brakes are lifted off damaged cells and they proliferate wildly, often invading other tissues in the body. That much, researchers have known for years.

But scientists are just beginning to understand more about the molecular factors at work when certain genes within a cancer cell's nucleus - genes that control whether or not that cell will grow - malfunction. These cell cycle genes seem to be stuck in the "on" position, which causes cancer cells to divide. The overarching goal of this kind of research is to design drugs and other therapies that specifically hone in on this particular piece of the complex and multi-step process by which a cell becomes malignant.

Two UC Davis Cancer Center basic scientists, Ronald Wisdom and Hongwu Chen, are trying to understand some of the biological mechanisms underlying breast cancer by studying proteins believed to play a part in instigating the disease. Both are recent hires brought in to bolster the cancer center's basic and translational science programs in breast cancer.

"They are both really outstanding recruits. I feel very fortunate to have recruited investigators of such high caliber," said Hsing-Jien Kung, basic science director at UC Davis Cancer Center. "To me, they have already made a difference."

How certain genes are switched on to activate cell growth is a complicated chain of events. First, one cell secretes growth factors, which move through the spaces between cells and bind to speci-fic receptor molecules on the surface of nearby cells. The receptor then interacts with other proteins in the cell's interior, eventually reaching proteins embedded in the nucleus. Once in the nucleus, certain genes are turned on that usher the cell through the growth cycle.


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Molecular biologist Hongwu Chen measures the role of various genes in controlling cell growth.