National Cancer Research Monthis an important reminder that cancer is an insidious enemy. It’s always evolving. In order to shut cancer down and develop new therapies and cures, scientists have to attack it at its most fundamental level, and from as many angles as possible.
Sanford-Burnham has spent decades working against cancer. We were founded in 1976 as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation and have held a basic research cancer center designation from the National Cancer Institute for almost 30 years.
Our researchers are guided by the understanding that the most substantial breakthroughs come from studying the basic mechanisms of cells and the molecules that comprise them. The more strategies we adopt in the fight against cancer, the more opportunities we will have to develop new medicines. The following are examples of what Sanford-Burnham scientists study to continue that fight.
Cancer is caused by changes in our DNA sequences or how those sequences are expressed. These changes can be caused by genetic mutations or by epigenetic alterations (changes that do not alter the genome but affect the function of the genome). Understanding how genetic and epigenetic changes arise, the significance of these specific changes and the consequences of inappropriate gene regulation (when genes are turned on or off) can reveal new strategies for drug discovery.
We now know that the growth and spread of cancer involves not only tumor cells but also other host cells in the tumor microenvironment—the cellular neighborhood around cancer. For example, angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) requires the tumor to recruit blood-vessel-building cells to enlarge its blood supply. This mechanism provides oxygen and nutrients to tumors, allowing them to grow and their cancer cells to escape and metastasize. Learning how to alter the microenvironment could lead to new approaches against cancer.
Our cells are constantly receiving signals to grow, divide and perform many other functions. But when these signals get crossed, cells can no longer perform the jobs they’ve been assigned. In cancer, cells may ignore the instructions they’re receiving or accept entirely new instructions—to divide unchecked or migrate to another part of the body. If we can learn how these complex signals work, we can figure out ways to correct them when they go wrong.
Finding ways to make malignant cells die rather than escape death holds great promise for new treatments against cancer and other diseases. Sanford-Burnham research has led to a synthetic DNA-based drug that shuts off an anti-death gene in cancer cells, making them easier to kill with conventional chemotherapy. Numerous other possible therapies are also under development. But it all comes down to one question: How do we convince errant cells to do the right thing and die?
To learn more about the fight against cancer, visit the American Association for Cancer Research.