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(Last updated 9/16/04)

RESEARCHERS RECEIVE NEARLY $9 MILLION TO STUDY CANCER PROGRESSION

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The National Cancer Institute has awarded a five-year, $8.6 million grant to researchers at Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center to study how non-tumor cells in direct contact with tumor cells help cancer progress.

Michael Ostrowski
Charis Eng
Gustavo Leone

The researchers will focus on the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer progression, although the study's findings might apply to any cancer of epithelial tissue, including prostate, lung, colon and liver.

"The role of the microenvironment in tumor progression is an emerging area of research that clearly has important clinical implications, both for the diagnosis and treatment of human carcinoma," said Michael Ostrowski, program director of the grant and a professor of molecular genetics with Ohio State's College of Biological Sciences.

Ostrowski is also a co-principal investigator on the grant, along with Ohio State colleagues Charis Eng, the Dorothy E. Klotz Chair of Cancer Research and the director of the clinical cancer genetics program, and Gustavo Leone, an assistant professor in the human cancer genetics program.

Ostrowski, Eng and Leone will each direct one of three projects addressing the idea that genetic alterations in non-cancerous cells located next to tumor cells directly contribute to how the cancer progresses.

If their theory proves correct – that a tumor relies on non-tumor cells for recruiting blood vessels and for spreading throughout the body – it could change current beliefs about how breast cancer grows.

It would also help researchers identify new targets in non-cancerous cells for the development of the next generation of chemotherapeutic agents, as well as provide new animal models that more closely resemble human disease progression.

"Current cancer therapies target genetic changes in the tumor itself," Ostrowski said. "But epithelial tumor cells don't have the capacity to grow and spread on their own, so they rely on other types of cells to do so."

In normal breast development, for example, epithelial cells branch out by tunneling through another layer of cells. But epithelial cells can't do this alone. So they recruit other cells that can burrow through tissue, with the epithelial cells ultimately filling in these tunnels.

"It's become clear that there's a very similar process in tumor development and progression," Ostrowski said. "The tumor cells don't act alone – they need other cells both for growth and also for remodeling the tissue matrix before a tumor can really become a tumor.

"All of these cells talk to each other in a kind of network," he continued. "During normal development, this network eventually shuts down. But that doesn't happen in the tumor microenvironment."

The five-year project begins this month.

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Contact: Michael Ostrowski, (614) 688-3824; Ostrowski.4@osu.edu
Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; wagner.235@osu.edu