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What proteins say about cell behavior

Understanding how a cell makes a decision in response to a drug or stimuli—to grow, to move, or to die—could give doctors richer insight into why, in many cases, different therapies work for different patients. The key to understanding how cells make these decisions may lie within the network of proteins inside those cells.

Using individual protein markers to determine the best treatment for patients isn’t a new idea; however, a single protein is just a small part of the network of active proteins in a cell. Instead, Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Pamela Kreeger and her students track how multiple proteins interact with one another as well as their relative balances to one another, creating a picture of what protein messaging looks like within the cells of a given patient. 

Knowing what the protein network looks like in the cells of a patient who responds to a therapy could help doctors determine the best therapy for newly diagnosed patients. For example, in ovarian cancer patients, who generally are diagnosed very late, quickly identifying the best therapy could drastically improve patients’ odds of survival.

A model that explains the differences among ovarian cancer patients also could help explain why a drug mired in the trial process isn’t working as expected. “Our hope is that our models could potentially rescue a drug from trial by figuring out why one group of patients responded and not another,” says Kreeger.

Kreeger also is using this approach to understand conditions beyond ovarian cancer—for example, understanding how cells make decisions in wound healing could help researchers develop better bandage materials, or help identify therapies for endometriosis, a condition in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus.

In addition to working to understand the decision making within cells, Kreeger gives undergraduate students a chance to explore a career in research by offering them posts as researchers in each of her lab’s projects.  “I think some undergrad classes, especially the early ones, can seem so disconnected from what they want to do as engineers,” says Kreeger. “I think it’s useful for them to see that your intro biology and chemistry are really giving you tools that you’re going to use long term.” 

Mark Riechers
1/16/2013