In part one of this series, experts at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center discussed their predictions for the future of cancer medicine during a Cancer Conversations forum on Nov. 3, 2015. These experts also discussed how they collaborate with other scientists. On the panel were:
- Kimmel Professor and Director of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation SciencesTheodore DeWeese,
- Kimmel Scholar and GI cancer pathologist Laura Wood,
- Kimmel Scholar and cancer biology cell division scientist Andrew Holland,
- Martin D. Abeloff Scholar in Cancer Prevention and Control and Deputy Chair in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Elizabeth Platz,
- Co-Director of Cancer Immunology Charles Drake, and
- gene sequencing expert Vasan Yegnasubramanian.
Collaborations Informing Cancer Research and Medicine
Platz: The amount of methylation of DNA is critical to whether a gene can produce a protein or not—whether that gene is active or inactive. I am collaborating with Vasan to study methylation patterns in individuals. One unique study came about through a Kimmel Cancer Center partnership with Howard University. We have developed a repository for umbilical cord blood to explore differences in methylation patterns to see if it may help explain why African American men have much higher risk of prostate cancer than white men. Could there be underlying molecular changes in methylation patterns that begin very early in life and set people up for cancer later in life?
Drake: We have a depth of expertise here in epigenetics and I am collaborating with experts to better understand immune responses to cancer. Perhaps some immune responses are being blunted by epigenetic mechanisms and we could develop drugs to target this.
Wood: We need to become more specific about what the cells we analyze. Tumors are a mix of tumor cells, immune cells and other cells. I’d like to expand the understanding of cancer biology to get a good read on what is happening within a tumor so that we may identify precursers that will allow us to detect cancer earlier and even prevent it.
Holland: Cancer research has been empowered by new instruments that allow us to peer inside the living cell and see things happening with exquisite detail. In the laboratory, we can use them to manipulate the genome, change the genetic content of these cells, to see how it changes the physiology of these cells.
DeWeese: Why do cells of different types respond differently to radiation therapy when they have the same DNA? Cell biology, using a biomedical engineering perspective may shed light on the biomechanics of how these cells are organized and how this dictates how they respond to therapy. If we can understand how structure influences how cells respond, there are things we can do to manipulate this structure and ultimately response to treatment.
Cancer is an evolutionary process. If we explore the things that we know can wipe out a species—changes in temperature, pH, and oxygen content—can we adapt evolutionary biology into cancer therapies? Can we use new technologies, for example, to alter the temperature in the microenvironment and stress cancer cells into death?
Yegnasubramanian: Computer science and engineering is key. What we have learned about cancer through gene sequencing is exceeding our ability to analyze it. Within a decade, we will need innovations to store and process our genomic data with computing technology. How do we address this challenge and continue to make advances as we simultaneously work toward innovations that address these challenges?
Watch the forum: