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How Do Genes Talk to Cells?

Annual Report - Winter 2011

(From left) Jennifer Texada; Jessica Tyler, Ph.D.; Gábor Balázsi, Ph.D.
Photo: John Everett

Cancer treatment could benefit from answer

By Fauzeya Rahman

Gábor Balázsi, Ph.D., wants to understand how things work.

A physicist by training, he strives to figure out how certain genes control cell populations and how this process relates to cancer treatment.

“We’d like to understand how genes talk to cells,” says Balázsi, assistant professor in the Department of Systems Biology. “What we’re doing isn’t mainstream. We’re doing something basic that would be applicable for cancer treatment.”

Balázsi’s unconventional research helped him become the first MD Anderson person to win the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. 

“The goal is to give investigators independence so they can try out new ideas that could have major impact on the treatment of diseases and human health.”

'Unconventional' questions asked

With this award, Balázsi says his lab can “ask unconventional questions, which is always more interesting.” 

His group works with yeast cells because they relate to human cells. Two mechanisms are very similar: cell cycle and drug resistance. There are commonalities between how yeast resists antibiotic treatment and how cancer cells resist chemotherapy.

“If we understand this similarity, then we can understand how genes change to make cancer grow abnormally or resist treatment. Not only are we watching and understanding how genes behave, but hopefully we’ll be able to control the decisions that they make.”

Tyler studies how genetic information is used by cells

By Sandi Stromberg

Marriage and triplets haven’t changed Jessica Tyler’s passion for research one bit. They’ve just added balance to her life, she says.

A newly appointed professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Tyler, Ph.D., studies how genetic information in our chromosomes is used by cells. And she does it in a novel way.

“DNA is buried in special DNA packaging proteins,” she explains. “When these proteins are removed, the DNA is exposed to things like aging and disease — at least, in the yeast model we use. Out of all the proteins that occur in nature, these are most similar between yeast and humans.”

Yeast proves useful

This makes her research fundamental to all cancers. By studying yeast in every possible way, from X-ray crystallography to genetics, she hopes to discover how things occur normally in our bodies and figure out what goes wrong in cancer. Each technique informs the bigger picture.

“We showed that if we added more DNA packaging proteins to a cell, we could extend the life span in yeast by 50%,” she says. “This could be relevant to humans since the biggest risk factor for most adult cancers is age.”

Funding for Tyler and her research comes from MD Anderson’s Senior Trust Award, allowing investigators to follow new ideas and areas of research; The University of Texas System Board of Regents Stars Award, for recruiting star-level faculty members; and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) “Rising Star” Recruitment Award. Texas voters established CPRIT with a constitutional amendment that authorized $3 billion to fund research and prevention.CPRIT awarded MD Anderson $39 million in 2010.

Social, digital media help deliver the message

By Mary Brolley

If the medium is the message, the message is getting out.

MD Anderson has embraced social media in a big way, including a dynamic presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and iTunes. And a mere 18 months after its launch, the institution’s Cancerwise blog has gone from 13,000 to 20,000 page views a month.

Two things about Cancerwise’s first year have surprised Jennifer Texada, program manager in the Communications Office, who leads the social and digital media efforts.

Cancerwise offers 'human voices'

“First: what our contributors write about. They’re such human voices. Did you see Dr. Anas Younes’ post about the rescue of the Chilean miners?” she asks. “He compared the resilience and grace of the miners to that of his patients.”

“Second: how savvy the audience is. We have very educated readers. They’re smart, and they’re searching.” Her team, including a videographer and a web support person, and her communications colleagues strive to “bring the research down to a digestible level,” she says.

In its second year, how do they keep Cancerwise relevant? “We have to stay authentic, honest and transparent — and know what our audience is seeking. Helping researchers tell their stories is crucial. The purpose of the research is to improve patient care. Patients should know that we’re looking hard for solutions.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center