The Latest in Biomedicine: Strategies to Combat Cancer, Addiction, and Inflammation

A look at recent research from Pew-supported scientists

The Latest in Biomedicine: Strategies to Combat Cancer, Addiction, and Inflammation
Test tubes
Laboratory research by Pew’s community of investigators examines a broad range of diseases, including Crohn’s, breast cancer, and depression.

With a collective community of nearly 1,000 scientists, the investigators who have participated in Pew’s programs in the biomedical sciences over the past three decades undertake a body of research that is constantly evolving.  Some recent news from current scholars—exploring the role of neurons in decision-making or the effects of stem cells on cancer tissue regeneration, among other topics—shows the range of their work.

Understanding decision-making could determine new strategies to combat addiction and depression. Dragana Rogulja and Michael Crickmore—Pew scholars from the classes of 2016 and 2017, respectively—published a study in the journal Neuron on the brain circuitry involved in motivation. Using the fruit fly as a model, they explored the brain region containing neurons that play a role in making decisions, such as whether to eat, sleep, or mate. Rogulja and Crickmore found that although excitatory and inhibitor signals contribute to decision-making, the amount of dopamine present is key in determining whether mating occurs. Flies with high dopamine levels were more likely to mate, even when circumstances were not ideal. Understanding the molecular drivers of choice could spur new strategies for treatment of human disorders that affect motivation, such as addiction and depression.

Fasting could boost stem cells’ ability to regenerate. Ömer Yilmaz, a 2016 Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research, was named a winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2018 Martin and Rose Wachtel Cancer Research Award for his work on stem cell function in the intestines. In a recently published study, Yilmaz and a team of researchers discovered that fasting could boost a stem cell’s ability to regenerate by causing a shift in the metabolic process. This work could benefit patients receiving chemotherapy by helping them regenerate intestinal cells lost during treatment.

Certain microbes could predict inflammation risk in Crohn’s patients. Theresa Alenghat, a 2015 Pew scholar, has found a pattern of genetic modifications that appears to predict inflammation risk in people with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract. Physicians often have trouble determining which patients with inflammatory bowel disease have a high risk of severe swelling, a key factor in making treatment decisions. In a study covered by ScienceDaily, Alenghat provides insight about the intestinal microbiota—the collection of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that live in the human intestines—and how the interplay among these organisms triggers changes in gene expression in a way that may make some individuals more prone to intestinal inflammation.

New treatment could suppress triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). Min Yu, a 2015 Pew-Stewart scholar, and her colleagues published research in Nature Communications that provides a potential way to prevent this type of cancer—which is more difficult to treat because of a lack of cellular or genetic markers that drugs can target—from spreading to the lungs.  The study showed that the protein TAK1 is important to TNBC breast cancer cells in adapting to the lung’s environment, allowing the cells to grow into tumors there. Yu’s lab has developed new formulations of an existing compound that can inhibit TAK1 so that they can be delivered directly to the tumor. When injected into mice, the modified drug greatly reduced the formation of metastatic tumors in the lung.

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs.

Latest From Our Biomedical Programs