Viewing breast cancer in 3D

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IMRIC PhD student Roy Granit
IMRIC PhD student Roy Granit
Roy Granit is currently pursuing his PhD in Biomedical Research at The Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC) at The Hebrew University.
Microscope view: Intra-tumoral heterogeneity of a breast tumor

When thinking about breast cancer one might imagine a single disease in which a uniform bulk of identical cells divide endlessly. Yet (sadly) the reality is much more complex. Breast tumors can divide into at least six distinct subtypes that greatly vary in their biological features and treatment options, and these can greatly influence patient outcome. Things get even more complex as you take a closer look into the cellular composition of each tumor, and witness how heterogeneous these tumors really are. Some tumors are actually composed of many subpopulations of cells with distinct biological features and differential response to treatment. Some cells within the tumor may exhibit increased resistance to treatment, and remain unharmed by it, making it extremely difficult to eradicate the entire tumor.

For these reasons we, at the lab of Dr. Ittai Ben-Porath, set out to characterize the composition of breast tumors and uncover genes that control their proportion. We hope that by shedding light on these mechanisms, drugs that are able to shift the tumor identity towards a more treatable state will be developed.

Our research involves genetic manipulation of genes we suspect to have an impact on tumor composition and identity. Once we achieve this we need to evaluate the actual effect on the tumorigenic cells. To do so we are looking at the expression levels of several key genes in order to position the treated cells onto a theoretical linear axis that examines one of the tumorigenic traits. One such axis might describe for example how metastatic the cells are (non-metastatic <-> metastatic axis). By doing so we are able to assess to what degree, and in what “direction” our manipulation drove the tumorigenic cells into. In our recent publication we describe a novel approach, in which instead of looking at just the single axis, one can combine up to three breast cancer relevant axes at once while assessing tumor identity. This approach provides new insights, since it allows the researcher to appreciate the tumor state from a broader perspective and investigate the interrelatedness between different axes and the importance of intermediate states.

Hopefully this approach will assist our understanding of the complexity of the disease and yield new biological insights. This knowledge might one day allow physicians to alter tumor composition towards a more benign state, possibly by using pharmacological combinations that affect several axes to do so.  

Check out Roy's Vlog here