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Behavior of Receptor Protein Critical to Many Cancers is Focus of UB's New American Cancer Society Grant

By Lois Baker

Release Date: January 14, 2009

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UB biochemist Marc Halfon will use a grant from the American Cancer Society to study cell protein signaling pathway functions.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- During normal growth and development, cells in the body communicate with each other through protein receptors on the cell surface.

Among the proteins used for this communication are receptor tyrosine kinases, or RTKs, which receive signals from outside of the cell and transmit them to the inside of the cell, leading to the turning on or off of specific genes.

RTKs have been shown to play a critical role in the development and progression of many cancers by transmitting too much signal.

Marc S. Halfon, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo, has received $720,000 from the American Cancer Society to study how the RTK signaling pathway functions.

This information should help guide the future development of novel RTK-targeted drugs with minimal side effects to treat an array of cancer types, Halfon said.

"This grant is a testament to the commitment of our volunteers who, in spite of a difficult economy, continue to raise critical funds for research through programs such as Daffodil Days and Relay For Life," said Gretchen Leffler, the society's regional vice president. "It also is a sign of the significant commitment UB has made to fighting cancer, whether it's going smoke free campus-wide or providing cutting edge cancer research facilities here in Western New York. The University at Buffalo quickly is becoming a national leader in the search for better treatments and a cure."

"Altered activity of RTKs and the protein partners of RTKs in cells, termed members of the signaling pathway, have been implicated in many cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, breast, lung, colon and brain cancer," said Halfon. "In recent years, a number of drugs blocking RTKs and the RTK signaling pathway members have been approved for the treatment of cancer.

"One poorly understood aspect of RTK signaling," he continued, "is how different members of the RTK family convey different types of information into the cell. In fact, it is not entirely clear whether differences in the RTKs themselves, or differences in other pathway members present in a given cell type, are responsible for the specific effects of signaling seen with one RTK versus another."

The researchers work with the fruit fly Drosophila, a key model organism that has played an important role in helping to discover crucial aspects of RTK signaling. Their studies are carried out primarily in the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences in downtown Buffalo.

"We will use cutting-edge genomic techniques that allow us to investigate all of the genes in the organism in a single experiment," said Halfon. "The work proposed here will make important progress in understanding more clearly how different RTKs carry out their specific roles in both normal and malignant tissue."

The goals of the research are to show definitively that there are intrinsic differences among the RTKs that are responsible for their distinct effects, and to discover genetic mechanisms that cause these intrinsic differences and lead to the activation or repression of specific genes.

The Department of Biochemistry is part of the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, one of the five schools that comprise UB's Academic Health Center. Halfon also is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo and a member of its Cancer Genetics program.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.