Treatment of cancer is usually a lengthy process. Even if the patient responds well to a treatment, most medicines nevertheless frequently have side effects in the long run. Biochemist Henriette Stoy from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden searched for a new treatment method to make treatments more tolerable for patients. research talked to the former recipient of a grant from Bayer.
Too many people are still dying of cancer all over the world. Researchers are constantly seeking new treatment methods, as cancer cells often develop resistance to active substances over time. This makes further treatment extraordinarily difficult and many medicines can have major side effects in the long term. In recent decades, research has gained an increasingly better understanding of how cancer cells function, and there are widely differing ways of approaching the disease. It is therefore particularly important for research in this field to continue unchecked.
For my Masters degree, I spent six months studying mechanisms that selectively kill off cancer cells. I concentrated on protein degradation in cells. If this is disrupted, the cell’s survival is at risk. With Nico Dantuma’s team at the Karolinska Institute, I worked on characterization of new molecular compounds that inhibit protein degradation. Bayer sponsored my research at that time with a grant and provided me with a mentor. Both of these factors helped me to grow as a scientist.
Why Do Cells Need Protein Degradation?
Proteins are one of the most important building blocks of cells. They perform a highly diverse range of roles and, for example, repair damaged cells. Within a single cycle, a cell is constantly synthesizing proteins and breaking them down. This is how it constantly adapts its functions to changing conditions and maintains its inner equilibrium. If the protein concentration in the cell increases, the cell becomes unbalanced; at risk of protein intoxication, the cell is now subject to what is known as proteotoxic stress. If it is no longer at all able to break down old and defective proteins, proteotoxic shock occurs and the cell dies. Since cancer cells, in particular, produce many mutated and defective proteins, they are especially reliant on functioning degradation.
The new molecular compounds inhibit protein degradation differently to many conventional medicines. My colleagues are currently still working on precisely elucidating the mechanism. In tests on cancer cells, we found that some types of cancer are particularly susceptible to these compounds. It is yet to be determined, however, whether the compounds selectively target cancer cells in cell clusters as well. If so, they may become the basis for new cancer medicines. By combining them with already established medicines, we can then protect patients against long-term side effects and even treat patients whose cells are already resistant to conventional inhibitors.
I find cancer research incredibly exciting. Cancer cells manage to outwit all the body’s control mechanisms. They ultimately cause the whole body to fail. I want to know how one cell manages to be so superior to others. I would therefore like to get to know the disease from as many different angles as possible. Prior to the 2016 grant, for example, I was studying how cancer develops in the human body at the University of Tübingen. From September 2017 onwards, I shall be focusing on cell repair mechanisms and cell injury as a PhD student at the University of Zurich. These factors may likewise promote the development of cancer cells.
Cancer research is a very fulfilling field. I definitely want to study the disease further. And perhaps my work will help to improve patients‘ lives.
The Bayer Mentoring Program
As well as a Bayer grant, students also receive expert support as part of the mentoring program. An expert from the industry accompanies the mentored student throughout the course of the program with advice on any issues relating to research and career planning. As a result, students gain insights during their studies into areas that would not otherwise be apparent to them, such as the pharmaceutical industry. The mentoring program does not come to an end when the grant runs out, however. Even afterwards, protégés continue to receive support from their mentors.