Sep 19, 2017 10:00 AM

Author: Helena Lucente


When you hear the word “metabolism” you may first think of weight loss. But researchers studying cancer cell metabolism aren't thinking about diets—they're looking at the way cancer cells make chemical changes in order to function. Cancer cells use a different metabolic process than healthy cells, so by studying that process, researchers can find treatments that target cancer cells specifically.

In 1924 it was discovered that cancer cells burn sugar in a different way than healthy cells do: they take up an excessive amount of glucose (a form of sugar the body uses for energy) to grow and expand faster than normal cells. This knowledge led to diagnostic tools like the positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which uses a radioactive glucose tracer. PET scans reveal tumors because cancer cells take up much more of the tracer than healthy tissue.

Zhizhou Ye in the labZhizhou Ye, a graduate student in the Ayer Lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), studies how cancer cells rewire metabolism to flourish. Her research focuses on a tumor suppressor protein called TXNIP, which stops glucose uptake in tissue. Her current findings suggest that the DNA sequence of the TXNIP gene instructs cancer cells to decrease TXNIP protein production so cancer cells can take up more glucose to keep growing and dividing. Her ongoing research looks at whether cancer cells use this process to regulate other genes to meet their growth requirements.

Zhizhou advises young aspiring scientists to understand experiments will fail most of the time—that is the nature of science. But that doesn’t mean the scientists themselves are failures. Scientists must avoid self-criticism and instead focus on learning from the failures, being persistent, and staying passionate. Zhizhou enjoys basic science research and understanding the processes that lead cancer to develop and progress. She hopes to use the critical thinking and troubleshooting skills she’s gained in graduate school to join a biomedical research and development team and continue finding new treatments for patients.

This article is part of a series on graduate student trainees at HCI. Educating the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians is critical to reducing the cancer burden and is one of HCI’s goals. Learn more about education and training opportunities at HCI.

cancer research trainees

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