Huang gets $1.5 million to study tumor cells

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

With a $1.5 million grant recently awarded by the National Institutes of Health, U researcher Eric Huang now has extra funding to study the process of tumor growth and possibly slow that process down.

Huang’s work could also help other researchers develop therapies that prevent or slow certain types of cancer.

Huang, a professor of neurosurgery, said he believes tumors grow faster because they take advantage of weakened cells that have less oxygen in them.

“If this is the reason tumors become more malignant, we can try to identify new ways to stop the tumor progression,” he said.

Early detection is important in malignant tumor cells.

More than five years ago, Huang began looking at the mechanism that drives tumor cells to spread. He started by studying a brain tumor that causes most patients affected by it to die only a year after diagnosis.

Huang published a study about two years ago showing that oxygen deficiency in cells most likely leads to genetic instability. Now Huang is targeting a certain gene that transfers genetic information.

The NIH grant will award Huang $312,288 every year for five years to help fund his research project.

With the help of students and other researchers in his lab, Huang will be able to study malignant cells by transplanting the oxygen-deficient gene into mice. He plans to study whether the tumor spreads in cells with that gene more than it does in cells without it.

“Our hypothesis is that we think it’s related to oxygen deficiency,” Huang said. “We think the tumors take advantage of low oxygen.”

He said they are studying the gene because they believe it mediates how genetic instability is affected by oxygen deficiency.

Young-gun Yoo, a post-doctoral researcher in Huang’s lab, said his previous research on that gene in animal models indicates the genetic instability does cause tumors to grow.

Huang said that if the study proves true, researchers may be able to prevent genetic instability in a cell and slow down tumor growth.

“It’s a pretty hot research area,” he said. “People are constantly screening for what small molecules could inhibit cancer.”

Yoo said other scientists have tried targeting genes that affect cancer, but Huang’s research might conclude what next step researchers will need to take in their work on cancer treatments.

Huang and other neurology researchers recently moved into new laboratory space near the U Hospital. With the extra funding and new space, Yoo said, they will be able to complete more work and hire another researcher to help with the process.

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Eric Huang