UVA researchers’ discovery could give cancer patients more personalized treatment options

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. — Researchers at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine have discovered something new about cells that could help doctors create more personalized treatment options for breast cancer patients. 

Dr. Todd Stukenberg has spent two decades of his life studying what makes cancer cells grow. 

“A challenge when looking at cells is that there’s 20,000 proteins in there,” he explained while showing Capitol Bureau Reporter Sara McCloskey images from a microscope. “So we make labels to label one at a time so we can see what one protein is doing.”

There’s one protein structure Stukenberg and his team of researchers have been focused on over the past year. 

“This is one of the most exciting discoveries we’ve had in years,” he said. 

The protein structure, called an organelle, only forms when one cell is divided to create two, which is a process called mitosis. The structure makes sure when DNA is splitting between the two cells, that it splits evenly. This ensures the cells are healthy. 

If the DNA does not split correctly, then people can develop cancer. 

“Cancer cells take advantage of this organelle,” Stukenberg explained. What they do is they make it so it does not work quite as well. Therefore cells occasionally make mistakes when they go through mitosis and that drives tumor procession.” 

Stukenberg and his team have worked extensively to see how this protein structure works in breast cancer tumors. 

With this new discovery, he says, doctors have a new way to identify more personalized treatment options for patients’ tumors. 

“If we understand how cancer cells are changing that leads to new therapies that are much more effective,” he added.

More studies are being done to understand what happens with this cell structure and other cancers. 

The Stukenberg’s lab recently published a study about its findings in the Nature Research Journal. 

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