Hilary Coller: Inducing apoptosis in quiescent cells

Dec. 6, 2010

Name: Hilary Coller, assistant professor of molecular biology

Invention: Inducing apoptosis in quiescent cells

What it does: In the war against cancer, dormant tumor cells are among the most formidable enemies, often escaping conventional medical treatments that target actively dividing cells.

A state related to dormancy, known as quiescence, is common in cells called fibroblasts, which are found in connective tissue and provide the scaffolding for living tissue. If these cells do not become quiescent at the appropriate time, the results can be dreadful: the development of fibrotic diseases, which can produce deadly accumulations of connective tissue, or cancerous tumors.

In research on quiescent fibroblasts, Coller and her colleagues discovered that two biochemical pathways, or cascades of chemical reactions, are very important to the health and wellbeing of the so-called sleepy cells. The first affects the way sugar is used by the cell, while the second allows cells to destroy old or damaged parts that might otherwise be harmful. By combining chemicals that inhibit these two pathways and administering them to quiescent fibroblasts, which are usually remarkably hardy and durable, the researchers were able to induce a suicidal cell process known as apoptosis.

If similar results could be achieved with dormant tumor cells, the discovery could inform the development of new anti-cancer therapies.

Collaborators: Chemistry professor Joshua Rabinowitz, associate research scholars Aster Legesse-Miller and Xiao-Jiang Fend, research specialist Irene Raitman, and graduate students Johanna Lemons and Erin Haley.

Commercialization status: A patent is pending.