Xin Lu: Cancer and regenerative medicine
Identifying the switches that turn cell growth off and on would have profound implications for cancer medicine. If the right mechanisms can be found, cancer cells could be targeted specifically, resulting in more efficient treatments. Nuclear reprogramming could also enable cells to be utilized more safely and effectively in regenerative medicine.
Q: What is the link between regenerative medicine and cancer?
XL: How to control cell growth in my view, is the underlying link between regenerative medicine and cancer. Cancer is a disease where the cancer cells grow uncontrollably and in the wrong place. Regenerative medicine, on the other hand, is trying to regenerate new cells to replace lost or damaged cells in the disease, for example neuro-degenerative disease.
Q: How can this knowledge improve the efficacy of cancer treatment?
XL: For us to treat cancer efficiently we need to understand how the cells grow uncontrollably. If we understand how the whole control process is governed, we will be able to stop the growth more efficiently and kill the cancer cells selectively and efficiently.
Q: What are the most important developments over the past 5 or 10 years?
XL: In my personal view, I think the understanding of how to reprogram cells through nuclear reprogramming is the most exciting and fascinating discovery in the last 5 or 10 years. What this means is that you can take a cell, add in four factors and you could change the cell fate. You can change the cell into a stem cell and then you can induce the cells into all sorts of types of cells. At the same time how to reprogram cells into all sorts of different fates is exactly what went wrong in cancer. One of the four factors that people use to reprogram a cell is also a factor that promotes cancer cell growth, we call it oncogene. The reprogramming process is actually not that efficient. The reason it is not so efficient is because there is a break built in our cells and we call it a tumour suppressor. This is what governs us not to get cancer at the very early stage.
Q: Why does your line of research matter? Why should we put money into it?
XL: What we do is to identify molecular switches that control cell growth. It also controls how the cell would change its fate. Therefore anything we identify clearly is critical both for regenerative medicine and cancer.
Q: How does your research fit into translational medicine within the department?
XL: If we identify the key molecular switches that are able to allow us to stop the cancer cell growth, or to kill the cancer cells selectively, that would undoubtedly enhance the cancer treatment efficacy. It could also have implications in the prevention of cancer development, provide biomarkers for early diagnoses of cancer, and also give you the prognosis for the cancer treatment. At the same time the same molecular switches we do believe would allow us to enhance the efficacy of reprogramming of cells for regenerative medicine, and most importantly to provide safe cells for regenerative medicine because one of the major challenges in regenerative medicine is that you can reprogram a cell but you might reprogram it into a cancer cell. You don’t want to reprogram a cancer cell you want to reprogram a normal cell to replace what has been lost or damaged to give that treatment for the regenerative medicine.