Much as the nucleus serves as the brain of a cell, the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center is Northwestern University’s hub for cancer research activity.
The center’s mission – making advances to treat and understand cancer – brings together faculty and students from seven different scientific disciplines.
The PSOC is a joint venture between the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and is funded by the National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Thomas O’Halloran, associate director of the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and director of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, pulls together the PSOC’s multi-disciplinary research teams to identify innovative ways of combining physical and life sciences, like biology and chemistry, to treat disease.
O’Halloran talks about the research he and his students conduct with the goal of finding and applying new treatments for cancer patients.
What is the mission of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute?
At the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, we’re lowering the barriers between scientific disciplines by throwing our collective thoughts and efforts together to really go into whole new areas of science.
What kind of research do you particularly focus on? What are your students working on?
I’m very interested in the interface between the inorganic world, the world of minerals, rocks and metals, and life, and how do cells use these substances? I’m very interested in copper chaperones, molecules that conduct copper to the right address in the cell, and zinc fluxes, the movement of zinc in and out of the cell is turning out to be a major signaling event, a major set of switches in the cell respond to very rapid changes in zinc concentration. We’re also very interested in applying inorganic chemistry to develop new cancer therapies, new ways to treat cancer and to really shut it down at a much earlier stage in a much safer way than the current drugs being used.
Of all the research you’ve done, what would you consider to be your major or most important discovery?
The latest discovery in the lab is what we call the “zinc flash.” At the moment of fertilization, the mammalian egg goes through a set of contortions that involve expelling 40 million zinc atoms in this span of just a few minutes, as the egg prepares itself to develop itself into a full organism. The swings in zinc, the zinc fluxes, are probably the major regulatory switch that biology is using to turn on and off the progression and development of cells.
What is your favorite part of working with students in the lab?
I love when they teach me something that I don’t know. That’s when the learning process comes full circle. One of the fun things of working with undergraduate and graduate students in the research laboratory is that you help them see new ways to look at nature. You encourage them and push them to work in ways that no one has ever worked before to ask questions that no one has ever asked before. When they make these kinds of earth-shattering discoveries they change not only the way I think, but the way the whole field of chemistry and biology thinks. Without the students making these discoveries, none of this would happen.
With important discoveries happening here and across the country, what steps must be taken to communicate this information to the public?
I think we’re in a crisis in that area. I think that it’s very hard for the lay public to really sort out what’s going on in the field of science and medicine and technology. I think the media and also scientists as well, take the easy route out and say, “Oh, this new discovery is going to lead to a cure for cancer,” everybody applauds, and they go on to the next story. It’s really difficult to just simplify it. It would be helpful if there was better communication from the scientists. One of the key pieces is journalists who can pull out the story and articulate to help the scientists translate the information. I think it’s time for us as a community to really sit down together and examine how to cover the field of sciences and technology in a more meaningful and robust way.
What is the most important thing you think people should know about the work that goes on in your laboratory and in the PSOC as a whole?
I think that the types of fundamental discoveries, the types of basic science that go on in academic laboratories around the country are expensive, but they are the beginnings of the next level of knowledge. While it’s expensive, it’s something that is really key to our success as a global community. The public should come and learn more about these types of breakthroughs and celebrate the brilliant discoveries that our students are making.