Benefiting from the Human Genome

As one of the leading causes of death in the United States, cancer continues to challenge those working in the field. Despite long-ongoing research, much work remains before cancer is eradicated. Really a large family of diseases, cancer requires diverse methods for treatment and diagnosis that will only come with a better knowledge of the basic biology of the affected systems. Advances in understanding the causes, new techniques for drug discovery, and increased funding of cancer research have

Apr 30, 2001
Jennifer Fisher Wilson
As one of the leading causes of death in the United States, cancer continues to challenge those working in the field. Despite long-ongoing research, much work remains before cancer is eradicated. Really a large family of diseases, cancer requires diverse methods for treatment and diagnosis that will only come with a better knowledge of the basic biology of the affected systems.

Advances in understanding the causes, new techniques for drug discovery, and increased funding of cancer research have invigorated the already strong field. These advances have also opened up a wide range of opportunities for life scientists interested in working in cancer research. "Cancer research is a very strong and growing field, especially because of recent major advances in our understanding of the fundamental causes of cancer, and new opportunities to begin to rationally address these abnormalities," says Ronald B. Herberman, director the of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and associate vice chancellor for research, health sciences, University of Pittsburgh. "There's a growing sense of rapid progress being made."

Recent Advances

Courtesy of The Wistar Institute

Louise Showe



Foremost in advancing cancer research is the recent mapping of the human genome. "The ability to globally screen gene expression patterns using genomics and proteomics appears to have injected a new level of enthusiasm for learning what is going on in complex cancers that have been particularly recalcitrant to therapy," says Louise Showe, associate professor at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. She points out that a review of the abstracts from the recent meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (www.aacr.org) clearly demonstrates just how pervasive the use of these technologies has become in a short time.

Genomics and proteomics make it possible to isolate tumor samples with precision and evaluate the global changes in gene expression that occur in tumors. "The ability to recognize molecular signatures associated with different tumors should provide substantial improvement in cancer detection and diagnosis and will also be valuable for evaluating the efficacy of different treatment regimens," says Mary Beckerle, senior investigator and program leader at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

Also impacting the field is an improved understanding of the cell cycle, cell motility, signal transduction, and gene expression, all central processes that are disturbed in cancer cells. According to Showe, tissue and protein arrays are among other important advances that are affecting cancer research and changing the way scientists analyze disease. Tissue arrays can be used to analyze tumor specimens for a particular expressed gene and to determine the mechanisms of the action of drugs at the level of gene expression or function. Protein arrays allow gene expression analysis on the scale of a few or single cells. "These [arrays] are having a significant impact on research," notes Showe.

The technologic advances have created opportunities for scientists interested in cancer research. Expertise in areas as varied as genetics, immunology, molecular biology, electron microscopy, structural biology and X-ray crystallography, is applicable to cancer research today. For example, advances in cell cycle understanding have created fresh opportunities for cell biologists working on cancer. And genomics and proteomics particularly highlight the need for biologists and other life scientists with strong computational skills, including a familiarity with bio-informatics and statistics. "There is no specific set of skills that are needed as they may vary widely depending on the approach being taken," Showe says.

Both Showe and Beckerle note a growing interest within cancer research in identifying new compounds with health-related functions in the natural environment as well as in the laboratory. "Field ecologists have become involved in cancer research by participating in bioprospecting initiatives designed to identify new anti-tumor compounds in rainforest plants," explains Beckerle. According to Showe, peptides produced by frogs and insects have been shown to have anti-microbial activities and sharks have been shown to produce a factor that may be useful in developing a treatment to prevent unwanted bone growth associated with a rare genetic disease. "Similar compounds that may be useful in treating or preventing cancer may also be waiting to be discovered," she says.

Preparing for Varied Positions

In his position as the chair of educational affairs at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo N.Y., Arthur M. Michalek recalls that students often ask him what area they should follow. But because of the range of work available in cancer research, there is no particular field in which a scientist should necessarily specialize.

"I suggest that they follow their interests because the field is so wide that one can find a home regardless of talent or interest," Michalek says, noting that whether it's immunobiology, pharmacy, epidemiology, molecular biology, or another field, there's excitement in each one of these cancer research areas. Michalek, who is also a professor of epidemiology, advises undergraduates participating in the institute's summer program to be generalists and experiment with as many disciplines as they can. But also, "I tell them to be sure to be well-trained in statistics and to take a few writing courses, because being able to communicate results is so important."

To develop the strong experimentation skills required to conduct successful research and thus to advance to directing a cancer research program, a Ph.D. or M.D. is generally considered necessary. "But there is also a major and growing need for skilled technologists at the masters level and below," says University of Pittsburgh's Herberman. "Skills related to a variety of molecular biology techniques will probably be most important."

Where the Jobs Are

Individuals interested in working in cancer research have a variety of settings and locations available. Various pharmaceutical companies throughout the country are heavily focused on cancer drug discovery efforts. The government's National Cancer Institute has received increased funding for both intramural and extramural research projects. Many universities have created cancer institutes; among them are the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Other institutes undertaking cancer research function as independent nonprofits. The organization of such institutions may particularly benefit cancer research. For example, the Wistar Institute, a nonprofit specializing in biomedical research, emphasizes that its relative smallness allows it to quickly shift resources to capitalize on scientific opportunities.

At Roswell Park, an independent institution focusing specifically on cancer research, researchers have the opportunity to interact with clinicians and patients since the institute not only conducts research, but also provides patient care. "It's incredibly important to develop bridges and make bench research applicable to human beings. Working here, scientists make connections between their work and life," Michalek says.

A key effort among cancer research centers is increased emphasis on making such connections. "Translational research is particularly important to bringing new insights from basic cancer research into important clinical applications," Herberman notes. A willingness to form collaborations--among researchers across different field, among researchers and clinicians, and among research institutes and pharmaceutical industry--is also important to advancing understanding of cancer. Scientists involved in cancer research are already collaborating with increasing frequency than in the past, and, as Herberman puts it, "for rapid and sustained progress, more interactions would be very helpful."

Jennifer Fisher Wilson (jfwilson@snip.net) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.