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New approach to anti-cancer vaccines

Dendritic cells (DCs) are a special population of cells within the immune system. A team headed by Prof. Lea Eisenbach of the Department of Immunology recently used genetic techniques to edit out part of the native DC surface, replacing it with a peptide sequence based on melanoma antigens. When administered into cancer bearing mice, these customized immune cells were able to inhibit tumor growth, and improve mouse survival. This method could potentially be applied to many different tumor types.

Senescent cells and cancer prevention

The build-up of senescent cells—cells that stop dividing, but do not die—is a hallmark of aging tissues as well as cancer. Prof. Valery Krizhanovsky has helped clarify how senescence, known to block the proliferation of premalignant cells, can also promote tumor growth and progression. Studying premalignant pancreatic lesions, he demonstrated that senescent cells within such tumors exhibit high levels of a protein called Cox2. Further, he showed that pharmacologic inhibition of this protein prevented the lesions from progressing and becoming pancreatic carcinoma. These findings indicate that targeted elimination of senescent cells may be effective in limiting progression of precancerous lesions, and serve as an effective strategy for cancer prevention.

DNA-repair biomarker for lung cancer risk

Until now, most individuals referred to early CT screening for lung cancer have been smokers. Prof. Zvi Livneh and his colleagues are exploring a different approach, examining the efficacy of determining lung cancer risk through an individual’s “DNA repair score”—a summation of the activity of a number of molecular pathways through which cells are known to respond to genetic damage, as revealed in a blood test. Prof. Livneh’s study confirmed that a low DNA repair score indicates a heightened risk for lung cancer, regardless of the case’s disease stage. This may significantly improve current standards for identifying individuals who are candidates for early lung cancer screening.

Identified: “initiation factor” for cancer

Prof. Rivka Dikstein of the Department of Biomolecular Sciences recently demonstrated how a mutation that affects mRNA translation “sets the stage” for cancer. Using mammalian cells, she showed that an initiation factor called elF1A—known, in its mutated form, to be associated with cancers of the ovaries, thyroid, and eye—plays a critical role in maintaining both cell cycle progression and cell proliferation. Prof. Dikstein’s study reveals that this initiation factor is an essential component of an inhibitory feedback loop that blocks the overexpression of proteins, thereby controlling molecular dynamics that can trigger cancer onset. Her work reveals eIF1A as a biomarker that may eventually contribute to new protocols for preventative cancer screening, as well as diagnosis and personalized cancer therapy.

DNA repair

Based on the established role of mutations in cancer, and the importance of oxidative stress in creating the environment in which mutations occur, Prof. Zvi Livneh and Dr. Tamar Paz-Elizurof the Department of Biomolecular Sciences are exploring the role that non-optimal repair of oxidative DNA damage plays in colorectal and breast cancer onset. Using an integrated approach that combines epidemiological and clinical studies, the researchers have created a unique set of DNA repair blood tests that help characterize the molecular environment, and correlate this data with known risk factors for breast and colorectal cancer. Using this approach, they hope to lay the groundwork for early detection strategies.

Community and collaboration

On December 7th, 2016, the Swiss Society Institute for Cancer Prevention Research, a division of the Moross Integrated Cancer Center (MICC) at the Weizmann Institute of Science hosted a talk by Prof. Avrum Spira.  Prof. Spira, Director of the Boston Medical Center Cancer Center of Boston University, spoke about “the airway transcriptome as a biomarker for lung cancer detection and prevention.” In his lecture, Prof. Spira described techniques he and his team have developed for the identification of gene-expression-based biomarkers that can contribute to the personalized care of patients with lung cancer, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Identifying risk factors

Extensive studies have established a causal link between smoking and cancer. While the danger of smoking is now well known, the general public is less aware of cancer-related risk factors stemming from air pollution. This is one area of research being pursued by Prof. Yinon Rudich of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

An expert on the physical and optical properties of aerosols—the airborne dust that contributes to the onset of cancer as well as other disease conditions—Prof. Rudich has demonstrated how exposure to suspended urban dust can reduce the body’s natural antioxidant response and increase lung cancer risk.  His research is clarifying how such exposure alters gene transcription in specific genetic networks, thus identifying “biomarkers” that can be used to quantify cancer risk.  As such, his work is clarifying the factors that will drive the creation of more informed environmental policy—and better health—in the future.

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Programmed cell death

When the body identifies flawed cells, programmed cell death kicks in and prevents their proliferation.  Dysregulationof this process–also called apoptosis–can lead to cancer onset. Dr. Valery Krizhanovsky, of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology, is examining one apoptotic process called senescence, in which flawed cells are left to live, but cannot proliferate. While a senescent state, which can occur in response to cancer-inducing mutations, serves as an initial barrier to tumor development, the presence of non-dividing, senescent cells is also linked to inflammation, tissue destruction, tumorigenesis and metastasis. Using a small molecule, Dr. Krizhanovsky has demonstrated that it is possible to target and trigger apoptosis in senescent cells.  Working in a model of pancreatic cancer, his team’s work is contributing to new strategies that may eliminate senescent cells, and thus prevent the progress of pancreatic cancer to its more advanced stages.

Eliminating flaws

Lymphocytes are cells in our immune system that work as sentinels, identifying and eliminating flawed cells, including those that have been transformed into a pre-cancerous state.  Researchers at the Swiss Society Institute for Cancer Prevention Research are examining new avenues towards the characterization of this “surveillance” function, in order to eventually adopt this functionality in preventative therapeutics for high-risk patients.

Robot-assisted tests

Translational research is essential in moving basic research discoveries from the lab to the public health arena, and tissue samplesare a necessary and precious resource for these studies.

Blood is a common tissue often used in translational and medical research. Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells or PBMC (composed primarily of lymphocytes) are isolated by fractionation in Ficoll tubes.

The images below show a blood sample invacutainer tubes before centrifugation (left), and a blood sample in a Ficoll tube after centrifugation (right).

The centrifugation processresults in the isolation of the PBMC band. Through the use of robot-assisted tests developed in the lab of Prof. Zvi Livneh, these cells are utilized for the measurement of DNA repair enzyme activities.

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