Biomedical engineer studies crowd control and cancer cells

June 4, 2014 by Charles Feigenoff, University of Virginia
U.Va. assistant professor of biomedical engineering Kevin Janes uses his expertise in computational modeling in his research of tumors.

When Kevin Janes considers a tumor, he imagines the population of a dark and dystopian city. Originally colonized by the descendants of a single malignant cell, the tumor grows more diverse over time, as its inhabitants recruit different types of cells to join them and its cell of origin begins to evolve under the pressure of natural selection.

"Seen in this light, treating a is like managing a volatile and unruly mob," said Janes, a University of Virginia assistant professor of biomedical engineering. "Some of the cells may be truly bad actors, while others are swept along by circumstances."

Janes has found just such a group. He has demonstrated that some cells found in are not always malignant, but are affected by their relationship to the extracellular matrix that surrounds them. Depending on the signals that pass between them and the matrix, the cells grow and migrate uncontrollably or act like . They exist in two very different states.

"If you're uniformly aggressive, that mob of could fragment and become even more dangerous," he said. "A more productive therapeutic approach might be to consider the tumor ecology."

Janes advocates focusing on those cells that change their state depending on the surrounding environment and finding ways to steer them to a more benign state or one that might be more susceptible to existing treatments.

The design of this experiment reflects Janes's expertise as a computational modeler. His goal in this case was to steer a middle course between creating a generalized atlas of the tumor and creating a census of , which would be both time-consuming and impractical. "We want to come at this problem with just the degree of specificity needed to highlight the heterogeneity and variability of cells within a tumor," he said.

Guided by his models, Janes adopted a strategy of measuring all the genes expressed in small samples taken at different locations across a tumor. "The technique is designed to identify states that recur with reasonable frequency," he said. "The models gave us an understanding of the sample size we needed to produce reliable results." Janes also uses computational analysis to extract as much information as possible from his experimental data.

This computational work, Janes said, builds on modes of thought he brings to the problem as an engineer. "Engineering is the art and science of making effective compromises," he said. "We start with an end goal, and we identify the approximations that will enable us to approach this goal. As an engineer, I would rather arrive at a good-enough answer today than a perfect answer never."

Moving forward, Janes hopes to test his findings about in a therapeutic context. "We think we have found a protein that triggers these state changes," he said. "Using this knowledge, we would like to see if we can move these to a more tractable state where they would be less invasive. Long-term tumor stasis would be a worthwhile goal."

Janes would also like to migrate his studies directly to clinical specimens of breast tumors. "We used three-dimensional tissue cultures to demonstrate proof of concept," he said. "We now have the confidence to make the leap directly to clinical samples." Janes would like to analyze a subset of breast cancers, catalog the states observed and determine if the inventory of states or the proportion of states change from less advanced to more advanced tumors.

Explore further: Stopping the spread of breast cancer

Related Stories

Stopping the spread of breast cancer

June 3, 2014
The primary cause of death from breast cancer is the spread of tumor cells from the breast to other organs in the body. Northwestern Medicine® scientists have discovered a new pathway that can stop breast cancer cells from ...

To stay a step ahead of breast cancer, make a map of the future

January 23, 2014
Cancer isn't a singular disease, even when talking about one tumor. A tumor consists of a varied mix of cells whose complicated arrangement changes all the time, especially and most vexingly as doctors and patients do their ...

New tool to grow cancer cells streamlines laboratory research

May 15, 2014
A new technique that allows the growth of both normal and cancer cells and keeps them alive indefinitely is transforming and expediting basic cancer research, say investigators from Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer ...

Breast cancer cell subpopulation cooperation can spur tumor growth

April 8, 2014
Subpopulations of breast cancer cells sometimes cooperate to aid tumor growth, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers, who believe that understanding the relationship between cancer subpopulations could lead ...

A transcription factor called SLUG helps determines type of breast cancer

May 2, 2014
During breast-tissue development, a transcription factor called SLUG plays a role in regulating stem cell function and determines whether breast cells will mature into luminal or basal cells.

Recommended for you

Boosting cancer therapy with cross-dressed immune cells

January 22, 2018
Researchers at EPFL have created artificial molecules that can help the immune system to recognize and attack cancer tumors. The study is published in Nature Methods.

Cancer patients who tell their life story find more peace, less depression

January 22, 2018
Fifteen years ago, University of Wisconsin–Madison researcher Meg Wise began interviewing cancer patients nearing the end of life about how they were living with their diagnosis. She was surprised to find that many asked ...

Workouts may boost life span after breast cancer

January 22, 2018
(HealthDay)—Longer survival after breast cancer may be as simple as staying fit, new research shows.

Single blood test screens for eight cancer types

January 18, 2018
Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers developed a single blood test that screens for eight common cancer types and helps identify the location of the cancer.

Researchers find a way to 'starve' cancer

January 18, 2018
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to starve a tumor and stop its growth with a newly discovered small compound that blocks uptake of the vital ...

How cancer metastasis happens: Researchers reveal a key mechanism

January 18, 2018
Cancer metastasis, the migration of cells from a primary tumor to form distant tumors in the body, can be triggered by a chronic leakage of DNA within tumor cells, according to a team led by Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.