Unlike infectious diseases, cancer is caused by a rewiring of normal molecular systems to produce an uncontrollably dividing cell. This characteristic makes it notoriously difficult to identify therapeutic mechanisms that will target cancer cells, without harming normal tissues. Tumors, at high frequency, turn on genes that are only normally required for reproduction and not otherwise expressed in adult lung, heart, brain etc. If these genes are necessary for tumor cells to survive, they present a tremendous opportunity as therapeutic targets, since they are not required for the function of critical organs. Whitehurst’s group studies whether the proteins encoded by these genes are required for tumor cells to grow and divide. Her work has revealed that directly inhibiting a subset of these proteins can lead to the selective death of cancer cells, thereby providing a previously unrecognized basis for the design of new cancer therapeutics. Her lab’s mission is to build and expand on this expertise to more broadly evaluate all 105 of the genes that are found in tumors but not in normal adult tissues. Whitehurst will use a unique large-scale approach to determine which of these genes are most critical for tumor cell survival. Next, she will test if they are required for survival in tumors in animals. Finally, because little is known about how they support growth of tumor cells, she will investigate the ways in which they interact with other proteins to promote the unbridled growth of tumor cells. Ultimately, this work will present new targets for therapeutic intervention that will selectively destroy tumor cells and leave normal tissues unharmed.
Angelique W. Whitehurst, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the department of pharmacology and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Updated: April 4, 2011