The Latest Cancer Discoveries at UCI
Tackling cancer from all fronts
It’s thanks to our supporters that we’re able to fund this research, which will change lives in Orange County and beyond. Projects like these are opening vital new ways of tackling cancers and supporting those who fight it every single day.
You might think that all cancer research happens at the School of Medicine. But scientists and clinicians from more than 32 departments at UCI, representing the schools of medicine, biological sciences, physical sciences, information & computer sciences, engineering and business, are working on different strategies to defeat cancer.
The collaboration continues with UCI’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Orange County.
UCI first established a cancer center in 1989, earning NCI designation in 1994. Elevated to a "comprehensive" center in 1997 – a designation renewed in 2015 – it serves as a vital resource for Orange County and surrounding areas in the fight to alleviate the burden of cancer. Through world-class research, prevention efforts and the most advanced diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitation programs, UCI provides the best possible care for patients and their families.
Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing
PainBuddy: The Pain Buddy app is funded by the National Cancer Institute, and is currently being tested on children with cancer. It's a tool to help them manage pain and stress with mindfulness. The study was given a five-year grant in 2018. Once it's finished, UCI researcher Michelle Fortier says, more versions of the app that are culturally appropriate and accessible will likely be developed. Preliminary research shows that it has been effective so far. This project is funded by the Anti-Cancer Challenge.
Health literacy: Spanish-speaking cancer patients tend to have poor psychosocial outcomes, and a lot of that has to do with a lack of support in healthcare. An associate professor of nursing, Dr. Fortier is working with six families and coaching them on health literacy (doing research, making decisions), wellness and self-care (via healthy cooking classes and meditation, yoga and acupressure classes with the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute), and healthcare system competence (understanding who care providers are, where to go with certain questions). This is a three-year grant in its first year.
Late effects of childhood leukemia: This study focuses on the late effects of childhood leukemia, the most common childhood cancer. Many leukemia patients undergo needle sticks and other painful procedures as part of their treatment (port access, IV, bone marrow aspiration). Fortier says that team members are probing the use of salivary biomarkers instead of needle sticks in children newly diagnosed with leukemia. They have pilot funding to study the collection of cortisol (a steroid is given to cancer patients to stop production of it) via saliva rather than blood to measure adrenal suppression in these children as they go through treatment. Large amounts of blood are needed to accurately measure cortisol, while only a little bit of saliva is needed.
School of Physical Sciences
Anticipation of cancer growth: Natalia Komarova, Chancellor’s Professor of mathematics, trains her academic lens on anything in nature, from how human languages develop to how cancer grows. The theme that unites such disparate topics is evolution. Everything from words to cancer cells, Komarova explains, changes and evolves in predictable ways. Recently, her group investigated the forces governing cancer cell division and growth. Alongside her just-graduated Ph.D. student Lora Weiss, she learned how cells form networks and keep each other’s divisions in check within healthy tissues – but that the cells can “selfishly” break out of this system of control inside a tumor. Evolution has optimized these control networks to keep cancer likelihood down, but mutations can sometimes find weak links. The spatial arrangement of cells in tissues is a huge factor, and Weiss, in recent coverage, described the situation as a “real estate problem,” in that if cancer has a lot of space in which to grow, it’ll grow rapidly. Such findings could one day help doctors anticipate the growth trajectory of cancer in patients.
School of Biological Sciences
Defusing colon cancer cells: In the most common form of colon cancer, tumor cells feed on an amino acid called glutamine. However, curtailing the supply of glutamine can, paradoxically, make some of the tumor cells even more invasive. UCI researchers discovered a way to reduce glutamine without triggering that invasive backlash: by administering a modified natural substance. They now want to further modify the substance, a metabolite, to more effectively counter colon cancer cells.
School of Medicine
Radiation without side effects: Researchers at UCI along with researchers at Switzerland’s Lausanne University Hospital/University of Lausanne may have found a way to treat cancer without patients experiencing debilitating side effects. Using FLASH radiation therapy, ultra-high doses of radiation can be delivered in tenths of a second, compared with the current minutes long process. This new treatment modality greatly minimizes complications in normal tissue while effectively addressing the tumor. Dr. Charles Limoli, Ph. D., UCI professor of radiation oncology, says that in 10 years, this may become an option for radiotherapy patients worldwide.
Cancer driver genes detected: As we look for ways to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, a UCI study – published recently in Science Advances – has deepened the understanding of epigenetic mechanisms in the genesis of tumors and revealed a previously undetected set of cancer driver genes. Using a new prediction algorithm, researchers were able to identify novel tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes, particularly those with rare mutations, by integrating the most comprehensive collection of genetic and epigenetic data.
Uncovering cancer cell vulnerabilities: A new study has shown that a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy. Monitoring RNA hot spots revealed the target in cancer tumor cells, according to Remi Buisson, Ph.D., senior investigator and a UCI assistant professor of biological chemistry.
UCI Beall Applied Innovation
X-ray technology to fight cancer: With X-ray vision that would make Superman jealous, Chris Barty’s HyperVIEW technology can see down to a cellular level, producing images that are up to 1,000 times clearer than those from a traditional X-ray or MRI while significantly reducing radiation exposure to the patient. Barty, a UCI professor of physics & astronomy, says that HyperVIEW, which is still in development, will enable doctors to detect and even treat cancer in ways that were previously impossible. It could also pave the way for compression-free mammograms.
Starving cancer cells to death: Inspired by yeast, which uses a mysterious molecule to induce hibernation when its cells are under stress, UCI researcher Aimee Edinger, associate professor of developmental & cell biology, devised a compound that has a similar effect on cancer cells. Dubbed SH-BC-893, it starved tumors to death in mice without harming organ function. The research team has launched a startup company to bring the compound to cancer patients.