Cancer research, what’s that?

It’s summer and the semester is over, but that doesn’t mean that science and research takes a break. So I thought it would be a good idea to devote this post to the exciting world of cancer and cancer research. But what is cancer? What kind of disease is that? Cancer is actually not a single disease; it’s a collection of hundreds of diseases that develops when our cells divide (multiply) uncontrollably. As you might know cells can divide, one cell becomes two, two becomes four etc. Without cell division our bodies wouldn’t be able to grow and our wounds would not heal. But cells should only divide when needed and there are mechanisms that control this. In cancer, these control mechanisms are for various reasons defect, so the cells continuously divide even when they shouldn’t and this eventually results in a tumor.

One protein that controls cell division is called insulin like growth factor 1 receptor (IGF-1R). This is the protein that I’ve spent the past five years studying. IGF-1R is a protein that is mainly located at the surface of the cell and its task is to scan its surroundings, just like the radar on an airplane. When IGF-1R detects something, a wound for example, it sends a signal into the cell that reaches our genetic material (DNA) in the cell nucleus. The signal from IGF-1R switches on genes that result in cell division so that the wound can heal. Once healed, the signal is stopped and cell division ceases. In several cancers (breast, lung, prostate, colon and more) IGF-1R is over-active so the signal never stops resulting in continuous cell division and eventually tumor formation.

Research and development on drugs that aims to block IGF-1R in cancer are in progress, but have so far shown disappointing results due to low effect, toxicity or development of drug resistance in cancer patients.

HeLa cells
These are HeLa cells (cervical cancer). HeLa cells were the first human cells that scientists could culture outside the body. The nucleus is stained with a green color. Source:

For decades it was thought that IGF-1R was only located at the surface of the cell. However, my colleagues and I discovered that IGF-1R itself could travel into the nucleus of cancer cells. In the nucleus we discovered that IGF-1R could switch on genes that stimulate cell division. These discoveries opened up a completely new field of research that was previously hidden in the dark and made researchers look at IGF-1R from a new perspective. My research is to figure out what IGF-1R is doing in the nucleus and how it gets there.

So why is this important? First off, IGF-1R in the nucleus is mainly found in cancer cells and not normal cells which make it important to study. Second, as current drugs are mainly aimed at IGF-1R that are located on the cell surface, IGF-1R in the nucleus might be “hidden” from these drugs and that’s why the drugs have failed. Understanding what IGF-1R is doing in the nucleus would give researchers a better foundation for developing better drugs against cancer.

If you managed to read this whole post without getting too bored, great! Now you learnt something. But to simplify what I just wrote, check this short (1 min) movie I made.


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