When Good Cells Go Bad

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Image Source: National Science Foundation. Red indicates astrocytes. Green indicates oligodendrocytes. Blue indicates neurons.

Imagine a group of perfect, well-behaved children in a classroom. They listen to everything their teacher says and follow her instructions to the letter. They play well together and are as obedient and well-mannered as possible.

A normal human body behaves very similarly. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each serving a particular function. Our cells are supposed to behave exactly as our bodies tell them to by responding to regulated signals. If a cell receives a signal to grow, divide, or die, it will do exactly that. As with all life however, cells sometime start to malfunction. When this happens, the cell in question can be a threat to the body and they are put in a sort of detention. These cells will receive a signal to undergo a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This ensures that all the cells in the body are healthy and that no cells are harmful in any way. In other words: the perfect group of children.

Now imagine the opposite: a group of rowdy, uncontrollable kids. They don’t pay any attention to what the teacher says and simply refuse to do their required tasks. They eat when they want, sleep when they want, and there is no teaching them anything.

This is, in essence, what happens to a human body when it develops cancer. Put very briefly, cancer is a disease where the cells in a particular region of the body begin to grow uncontrollably, by-passing the cell’s normal control mechanisms. Cancer cells often get around the body’s signals by using a process called autocrine signaling. This is when one cell begins to send itself signals to replicate and thus creates a vicious cycle of cell growth. Eventually, this can cause tumors to form. When a tumor become malignant (i.e. spreads to distant tissues), it is termed “cancer”.

Many different types of cancers exist, each having varying levels of aggressiveness. As a graduate student, I am studying a type of cancer called glioblastoma (GBM). GBM is a brain cancer and one of the most malignant tumors due to the speed with which these cells divide and the abundant nourishment in the brain. It is a cancer that arises from glial cells, which are cells that provide nourishment for neurons, maintain cell health, and help to enhance the speed of nerve signals, among other functions. The causes of GBM are still unknown.

As with many diseases, much of the current research is focused on better understanding the cellular mechanisms that lead to GBM and finding more effective therapies. Many labs at Northwestern, such as those of Drs. Cheng, Wainwright, and Stegh, are working to better understand GBM and improve treatments. As a student in Dr. Cheng’s lab, for example, I am working on understanding a class of cell regulators called microRNAs, which are very important in ensuring that our cells don’t make too much of a given protein and can help prevent our cells from becoming oncogenic, or cancer causing. microRNAs can start to malfunction, in some cases leading to cancer. So, just as a preschool teacher needs to understand her children to control her classroom, we need to learn how cells start to become cancerous in order to correct that aberrance. 

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