Grant to fund research into cooperation of cancer-causing genes

February 02, 2017

HERSHEY, Pa. — Understanding how two genes cooperate to create an aggressive form of esophageal cancer could lead to more effective drugs to improve the survival rate from this type of cancer. Dr. Douglas Stairs, assistant professor of pathology and member of Penn State Cancer Institute, will study this cooperation through research recently funded by the American Cancer Society.

“The overall survival rate for esophageal cancer in the United States is 19 percent,” Stairs said. “This is in stark contrast to the overall cancer survival rate of about 68 percent.” To further illustrate, four out of five patients with esophageal cancer die, while two out of three with all other cancer types live.

The two genes that Stairs will study are known to be mutated in esophageal cancer. In past research, these genes alone were mutated in healthy cells which had become cancerous, showing they are primary drivers in the development of cancer. One of the genes activates the spread of cancer and tumor creation (called an oncogene) while the other turns off the ability of the cells to resist cancer (called a tumor suppressor gene). These genes are also associated with poor prognosis in at least 10 other cancers and Stairs’s research could benefit, for example, those who have been diagnosed with colon, lung, and head and neck cancers. 

“Our research will identify exactly how these two genes can induce esophageal cancer and how important the immune system alterations are in the development of esophageal cancer,” Stairs said. “Once we know how these genes cause cancer, we will be able to develop targeted therapies toward cancers that have these mutations.”

As part of the research, Stairs will also create the first-of-its-kind mouse model designed to selectively alter any two genes of interest in the esophagus. This model is an important tool to study gene interactions in living organisms.

Penn State College of Medicine will receive $660,000 in direct funding over four years.

(Media Contacts)

Matthew Solovey

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Last Updated February 02, 2017