Marinus van Loenhout
University of British Columbia
Helping cells say "no" to cancer
Despite all cells sharing the same genetic footprint, they do have the ability to "choose". Some will divide, other will stay the same, while just a few will make that irreversible choice to become a potentially lethal cell that spreads a cancer.
Identifying those individual cells and unraveling the molecular mechanisms behind these cellular "fate choices" is the goal of Dr. Marinus van Loenhout, a molecular biophysicist from the Netherlands who has pioneered new methods for visualizing the mechanics of DNA.
Dr. van Loenhout is currently working with world-class researchers at the University of British Columbia's Centre for High-Throughput Biology to understand how certain cells are able to survive and spread to other parts of the body where they do not belong.
One challenge is that current biological and genetic techniques are not sensitive enough to identify and track single cells, having to rely on observations based on the average of many cells which obscures individual differences. Dr. Van Loenhout is overcoming this by developing new technologies based on high-throughput screening and large-scale microfluidic integration, a "lab-on-a-chip" with thousands of micrometre-sized valves and reaction chambers to manipulate and study individual cells. The techniques will make it possible to differentiate, measure and characterize individual cells that are responsible for spreading cancer.
"If we can understand how these cells make choices on a molecular level, it may be possible to trick them into not becoming cancer cells. Such information would be invaluable for creating methods to control stem cells and developing new tools for diagnosis and treatment of cancer," he says.
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