Change is in the air as Timothy Foley, Ph.D., prepares his research laboratory at The University for a major overhaul as he shifts the focus of his research. Both Foley and students researching with him are excited for the change in the focus of research.
“I am excited to be moving forward in redox cancer biology. Having Dr. Foley’s knowledge and understanding of oxidative stress is allowing us to assess cancer in an unprecedented way. I am eager to have the opportunity to explore cancer from a metabolic standpoint, and I look forward to what the future holds,” sophomore David Yatsonsky said.
The drive of the shift comes from the passing of Lois Foley, Timothy Foley’s wife, this past January as a result of breast cancer. Foley plans to shift his lab from focusing on the effects of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in neurodegenerative disease to the role of ROS in cancer.
The research done in the lab over the last 10 years has focused on oxidative stress and questions pertaining to activated forms of oxygen. Oxidative stress reflects the imbalance of reactive oxygen species and the ability of a biological system to detoxify them. Some common activated forms of oxygen include the superoxide ion and peroxides. ROS accumulate both from endogenous and exogenous sources in the cell. Foley’s lab focused on the endogenous sources of ROS. In the cell, ROS are released from the process of cellular respiration; the breakdown of glucose during cellular respiration can release ROS. These species can activate certain genes and cause oxidative damage to a variety of structures in the cell, including proteins. The cell, as a protective measure, produces the enzyme superoxide dismutase and other compounds to break down ROS and restore balance to the cell. The compounds that work to breakdown ROS are collectively known as antioxidants.
In the lab they explored the role of these species as messenger molecules within the cell. The last major study conducted in the lab was the oxidation of cysteine residues in certain proteins. Over the last several years, Foley and his lab developed techniques to isolate these cysteine groups. In their latest study, the researchers were able to show that reversible oxidation of thiols can occur in a rat model. The same concepts and questions that they have been exploring translate well into current research on cancer.
“We still don’t have a good handle on what is driving the aggressive nature of cancer cells, and the reliance on poor rationale for chemotherapy and drugs, most of which are toxic, fail to selectively target cancer cells,” Foley said.
The major changes between the old lab regime and the new one are the model system used and the specific questions asked. Currently Foley and his lab are conducting research into the field of ROS in cancer. One major view that has arisen is of cancer as a metabolic disease.
Cancer cells tend to consume a large amount of glucose. By consuming large amounts of glucose, the ROS levels in a cancer cell are much higher than in normal cells. The higher levels of ROS are complemented by an increase in the level of antioxidants.
Research in the lab now shifts to focus on how the metabolism of the cell be altered within cancer cells to induce apoptosis but not harm non-cancerous cells. One area of promising research that the lab is looking into is the role of glucose metabolism in cancer. Another topic being explored is the regulation of genes producing antioxidants.
Whichever path Foley and his lab take, they hope to contribute to the growing field of cancer biology.