Recent NSF grant fuels cancer treatment research across disciplines

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Simply defined, cancer is a disease caused by an uncontrollable division of abnormal cells. However, the effect and complexity of this affliction go beyond those few words; cancer is not confined to one portion of the body or one type of tissue — there are over 100 different kinds of cancer.

Its effects cast a shadow across the United States — 439.2 new cases of cancer occur for every 100,000 men and women each year. And each year, there are 163.5 cancer deaths per 100,000 men and women.

Despite the harrowing statistics, a team of researchers at Kansas State is studying new treatments for some forms of cancer like glioblastoma, a common but aggressive brain cancer.

This team, led by Stefan Bossmann, professor of chemistry, received a $2 million four-year-grant from the National Science Foundation.

“This particular [grant] deals mostly with looking at how cancers develop and how external mechanical perturbations can affect that development or actually reprogram the cell to actually die and therefore stop the cancer,” said Chris Culbertson, College of Arts and Sciences associate dean and professor of chemistry.

Bossmann said this grant funds research to look for a link between cancer metabolism, mechanobiology and epigenetic modifications to cancer cells’ DNA.

“What’s really important here is to see that cells communicate with each other, by means of mechanobiology — that means they’re able to build tactile sensors — the sensors form within minutes, they live a couple of minutes, they sense the rigidity of the environment, and they sense whether [there are] healthy cells around them or not,” Bossmann said.

Cancer cells are dangerous because they have the ability to do more than regular cells, Bossmann. A regular cell will undergo cell death if it realizes it is out of place, but a cancer cell has deactivated this mechanism.

“However, by mechanical stimuli and metabolic factors, we are able to recreate this ability to undergo programmed cell deaths,” Bossman said. “So, you need a metabolic component and you need a mechanical component. And then basically, if you do this right, cancer cells will just sign off and die.”

To receive the grant, the team conducted convincing preliminary research. Bossmann said with help from Culberston and Bala Natarajan, professor of electrical and computer engineering, among other individuals, they studied CpG islands, a section of a genome, which will be helpful in the next steps of their research.

“We have developed a method [of] how to image methylated or not methylated CpG islands throughout the nucleus,” Bossmann said. “And this methylation state is basically how you switch them on or off. So, by looking at the state of switches, we can clearly see what global changes to the epigenome we are introducing, and that then take us down to local changes, meaning formation of the sensors. Once the cells sense that they are somewhere we they are not supposed to be, the cells just sign off.”

Bossmann said research is something that takes time, energy and collaboration. The group works with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

“So, what you basically do is, you have to create a group of experts and you have to discuss possibilities and develop this kind of vision for about one to two years before you’re at a point where this is competitive,” Bossmann said. “It’s not that you have suddenly this idea — it’s 80 percent communication and 10 percent literature and 10 percent preliminary work, but being in constant exchange with other minds is a key of coming up with new ideas.”

Culberston said the big part of the project is that it is interdisciplinary.

“We have medical doctors, biophotonics experts, organic chemists and electrical chemists working together to understand how really a bad disease develops and then identifying potential ways of treating the disease,” Culberston said.

Bossmann said K-State is strong in this type of research.

“Coming from a European background, where each professor lives in his or her ivory tower, there’s nothing in between — there’s void,” Bossmann said. “Here, the barriers to collaboration are very, very low, and that means that it’s much easier in a setting like [this] to do collaborative work, than it will be in other institutions. That’s a strength that we have, and, in my opinion, we have to cultivate that strength.”

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Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat and I'm the culture editor and an assistant news editor for the Collegian. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.