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Cancer research at Berkeley Lab: the intersection of science and health

Mention the overlap between science and health, and cancer research will probably spring to mind. Multidisciplinary teams of scientists have made tremendous progress on cancer diagnosis and treatment over the past several decades.

Today, thanks to ongoing advances in genomics and our understanding of the mechanics of cancer, the treatment of cancer is poised to undergo even more rapid improvements -- with Berkeley Lab scientists playing a key role. Scroll down to get a brief snapshot of where we’re going, and where we’ve been.

Understanding the mechanobiology of cancer

Berkeley Lab scientists are members of the UC Berkeley's Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, a collaboration with Berkeley Lab, UC San Francisco, and San Francisco's Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The center is one of 12 centers announced in October by the National Cancer Institute "to bring new perspectives to the mechanisms of cancer.” It will focus on the mechanobiology of tumor progression in breast cancer. Mechanobiology seeks to understand how mechanical forces affect proteins, cells, and tissues. Among other roles, mechanical forces tell cells where to divide and how to arrange themselves.

The center will focus on a particularly aggressive type of cancer called triple negative breast cancer. Patients with this cancer have fewer treatment options and an overall poor prognosis. Several Berkeley Lab scientists are involved in the center, including Jan Liphardt of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division, who is the center’s director and principal investigator. 

The center builds on research conducted by Berkeley Lab Distinguished Scientist Mina Bissell, a center co-investigator, who pioneered the idea that a cell's microenvironment influences whether it becomes a cancer cell.

Using advanced force probes and imaging techniques, the scientists will examine how mechanical forces affect cell signaling during tumor growth, how tumors change the mechanical characteristics of their tissue environment, and the feedback between cells and their environment.

Cellular senescence: a double-edged sword

Earlier this year, Berkeley Lab scientists reported that they identified a molecular cause behind the ravages of old age -- and in doing so revealed how a natural process for fighting cancer in younger persons can actually promote cancer in older people.  

Cellular senescence, the process by which biological cells stop dividing in response to stress or damage to their DNA, was shown to trigger the secretion of proteins that cause inflammation in neighboring cells and tissue. Inflammation is linked to almost every major disease associated with aging, including many cancers.

The research was led by Judith Campisi, a cell biologist with Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division.

“In this study, we provide for the first time a broad molecular description of how cellular senescence, which is well known as a mechanism for cancer prevention, also drives aging and age-related disease by changing the local tissue environment,” says Campisi.

Breast cancer research dream team

In May, a three-year grant to develop new and more effective therapies to fight breast cancer was awarded today to a multi-institutional “Dream Team” of scientists and clinicians that is co-led by Joe Gray, a renowned cancer researcher and Associate Laboratory Director for Life Sciences.

The grant was awarded by Stand Up To Cancer, an Entertainment Industry Foundation charitable organization aimed at moving cancer research out of the lab and into the clinic. Working with its scientific partner, the American Association for Cancer Research, Stand Up To Cancer awarded a total of $73.6 million to five multidisciplinary Dream Teams whose research could impact the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of cancers.

The Breast Cancer Dream Team will strive to bring personalized treatments to the spectrum of diseases that comprise breast cancer, which kills approximately 40,000 women annually in the U.S. and many more worldwide. The team is co-led by Dennis Slamon, of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, and involves 12 leading scientists and clinicians from institutions around the nation.

The team will apply cutting-edge biological, genomic and computational techniques to breast cancer research, with the goal of matching a tumor’s genetic and molecular profile with the therapy that has the best chance of treating it. They will also make this targeted approach available to scientists and clinicians across the nation.