Rensselaer Research Review Fall 2010
Lee Ligon cancer research
* Lee Ligon
Assistant Professor Lee Ligon
Department of Biology
Researchers Make Strides in Disease Prevention and
Drug Development

Rensselaer researchers are working on a number of fronts to facilitatedrug development and disease prevention from investigating interactions between cells as breast cancer spreads within the body, to the study of proteins in fighting osteoporosis, to the use of NMR to study of the protein purification process to increase efficiency in drug production.

Assistant Professor Lee Ligon's research on the interactions between cells as breast cancer spreads within the body is being furthered by the Research Scholar Grant from the American Cancer Society. The grant includes a four-year $720,000 award.

“We’re trying to figure out how cancerous and non-cancerous cells communicate with each other, how they bind to each other, and what the consequences of those interactions are,” Ligon said.

Ligon studies cadherins, proteins that cause cells to adhere to one another, allowing cells to form organs and other structures. Different cadherins are expressed by different cells, each for its proper function.

“Cells have to stick together appropriately and if they express the same cadherin they will,” Ligon said. “But that only works in the normal situation when cells are sticking to cells that they’re supposed to stick to. We’re interested in the situation in tumors.”

More than 90 percent of all cancers, Ligon said, originate in epithelial cells — cells that form barriers between the inside and outside of the body, like skin cells, or the cells that line the intestines, or milk ducts in the breasts.

Because epithelial cells form a barrier between the inside and outside of the body, they must renew themselves more frequently than many other kinds of cells — like muscle or nerve cells. That presents more opportunity for abnormal cell division and cancer.

Most breast cancers originate in the epithelial cells that line milk ducts. In the early stages of the disease, the epithelial cells begin to grow abnormally, but are still confined within the lining of the milk ducts. At that point, the cancerous growth can still be excised with a surgeon’s knife.

But with continued growth, the cancerous cells break through the barrier between the lining and the surrounding tissue — the stroma — at which point they come into contact with a different type of cell called fibroblasts. Now the cancer is progressing into the body. Unchecked, it will reach the bloodstream at which point it becomes far more difficult to treat. 

“Researchers Make Strides in
Disease Prevention and Drug Development”
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