Fresno State studies metabolites to target cancer
November 9, 2017
• It’s cutting-edge cancer research in a humble setting
• “Personalized medicine is the way of the future”
Jason Bush at work in his lab
(Fresno State photo)
In an unpretentious lab on the Fresno State campus where an old stenciled sign on the door indicates it had been not much more than closet, Jason Bush, professor of biology, is looking for ways to target biological mechanisms that fuel cancer.
Clues to cutting-edge cancer research may be found in metabolites, small molecules that could hold the secret to better quality of life for patients diagnosed with brain or breast cancer.
"Personalized medicine is the way of the future," Mr. Bush says. "It's about really understanding you, your own genetics and the genetics of the cancer to help refine the treatment."
Mr. Bush’s work with biology students is just one of the latest research projects underway in the College of Science and Mathematics at Fresno State, which recently received two major gifts to further its mission “to graduate the next generation of scientists and mathematicians, teachers, technicians, health professionals and field researchers."
A $1 million gift from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous was announced last month, with half allocated to student research in genetics and molecular biology and the other half for the President's Circle for Excellence.
And Chevron has announced a $450,000 donation to Fresno State in support of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs in Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering and College of Science and Mathematics.
Mr. Bush’s current work involves refining cancer treatments by studying stem cells.
“Humans are merely extrapolations of all their trillions of cells, but stem cells are special,” he says. “They have the potential to develop into different cell types throughout the body, thus acting as an internal repair system that is crucial to a healthy life.”
Maria Mendoza, a Fresno State biology graduate student, works with human stem cells, trying to find better ways to treat brain cancer.
"Human stem cells' purpose is to regenerate neurons and their supporting cells throughout life," she says. "That will keep you healthy. You're able to learn, you're able to continue on with your life."
In the lab, stem cells have to be treated carefully to avoid stress factors that might cause unwanted variables in the research, Ms. Mendoza says. Research results must be consistent in order to be valid.
“It is known that stem cells differentiate via two mechanisms that support a healthy body. They can have symmetric division in which they can make a new neural stem cell," she says. "That's the goal. Then, asymmetrically, they make progenitor cells that turn into the supporting cells."
An advantage to looking at the metabolites is that there are a limited number of them within a cell. Humans have about 21,000 genes from which hundreds of thousands of proteins can be produced. But the number of metabolites is much fewer. So looking at the metabolite profile can give researchers clues into what biochemical pathways may be triggered during cancer treatments. That's a way of fine-tuning potentially new therapeutic strategies.
"The problem is tailoring it so that you kill the cancer cells without actually killing the normal cells," Mr. Bush says. "So we have to have strategies to attack cancer cells preferentially. Since cancer cells are rapidly dividing cells, we tend to target those kinds of biological mechanisms."
The new scientific approaches being evaluated by Fresno State students and their professor could conceivably advance treatments targeting cancer cells while minimizing collateral damage. In short, a little metabolite could be exploited to take cancer therapy into the future.
"That's where modern medicine is going," says Mr. Bush. "It's all about not just treating two people the same way, because that's inefficient, and someone may not benefit from treatment. The more we can fine tune how to individualize a treatment, the more success we're going to have."