NYC dream: Biomedical research

I have been writing this NYC dream blog for past couple of years now. I have written about my experiences in exploring the artistic and social side of New York City. But, I have been very cryptic about the scientific side of my favorite city. Last year, in one post I have mentioned that NYC is the second largest research grant receiving city in USA. This year, last month, I gave a hint that I have been working on some cancer-art collaboration projects. But, what’s really going on with my hardcore biomedical research? I think it is time to poke a hole in the shell of my INTJ persona and push in some of my ESFP persona in it.

The main focus of my research has been variability within and among tumor cells. It is important to understand the extent of the predictability of this variability for its consequence on personalized cures for cancer. There are certain well known genes whose alterations cause cancer. These are called as oncogenes (‘onco’ meaning ‘cancer’). I have been studying extensively the connection between these oncogenes and cellular signaling alterations in lung cancer.
In recent years, couple of terminologies flooded the literature describing research findings in cancer. For example, systems biology and heterogeneity. The study of complex systems is not new in mathematics and physics. But until the first decade of this century, biologists focused mostly on reductionist approaches to understand every little detail of the molecular mechanism of cells. However, it was evident while understanding a complex diseased cell (e.g. cancer cell), we may need to study it as a whole. The idea is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. It became more essential as the studies on tumor microenvironment provided evidences on the importance considering tumor cells along with their stromal microenvironment. Unfortunately, the term systems biology has been overused in literature for past few years. Nonetheless, the cancer biologists understand the importance of system-level view of cancer. Hence, in recent years, animal model systems harboring patient derived tumor tissues gained more popularity than two dimensional cell line model systems.

As we have progressed towards more complicated model systems the second term that I mentioned became more and more daunting. Heterogeneity! It means the tumor cells are not only different from one patient to another (inter-tumor heterogeneity), but they can also be different even within one patient’s tumor (intra-tumor heterogeneity). Now, imagine a situation, where a patient has more than one type of tumor cells in his/her body. A single needle biopsy from one region of the tumor may diagnose only one type of cell. If a therapy is designed based on this diagnosis, the undiagnosed cells may escape the therapy causing relapse of tumor. There have been a lot of research efforts to understand the origin and extent of this heterogeneity in cancer.  

There have also been specific scientific conferences addressing systems biology and heterogeneity of cancer. One such meeting is organized by the Center for Cancer Systems Biology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) at NYC. MSKCC is the second largest cancer research facility in USA (after MD Anderson Cancer Center at Texas). Hence, when I found out about this meeting, I immediately wanted to go. They had couple of travel fellowships to encourage attendance of PhD students and postdoc in this meeting. They call this fellowship as the young scientist award. I didn’t complain as it sounded better than a travel award. The review committee liked my abstract and I was one of the two awardees last year. As part of this travel award the awardee needs to deliver a short talk on his/her research. I prepared my talk well. The interdisciplinary attendees of the meeting liked my talk. That was a fascinating experience for me.
It is good to be appreciated and recognized for the hard work that we researchers put in everyday in the lab. In addition, it also opened new doors and windows in knowing intelligent scientists from various aspects of cancer research.
The question that interests me now is – is there a way to reeducate these cancer cells about the fact that the host body would be unable to contain them beyond certain limits?

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