A grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation will support a City of Hope researcher’s investigation to determine whether a gene critical for the activity of normal neural stem cells could play an additional role in brain cancers.
Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Neurosciences, will receive the $112,000 grant to continue her studies of a nuclear receptor protein she characterized during her postdoctoral fellowship. The award is part of the McDonnell Foundation’s 21st Century Science Initiative, which supports neuroscience and brain cancer research.
Shi will use the award to determine whether the nuclear receptor, known as TLX, has a role in initiating brain cancer.
“TLX is normally expressed in neural stem cells but it is also expressed in cultured human glioma cells,” Shi said. A glioma is a type of tumor that forms in the brain. “We will check whether TLX is expressed in a special population of human brain tumor cells and, if so, what it is doing there,” she explained.
The “special population” is a subset of so-called cancer stem cells. Rather than being expressed only in the bulk of a tumor, cancer stem cells — also called tumor initiator cells — constitute a tumor’s roots: Many investigators believe an entire tumor can emerge from a single initiator cell.
“Brain tumor stem cells are what perpetuate a brain tumor. If you want to kill a tumor, the best target is the brain tumor stem cell. And any factor essential for brain tumor stem cell growth is the best target for drug development,” said Shi, noting that TLX might be such a factor.
Shi will collaborate with Michael C. Jensen, M.D., associate chair of the Division of Cancer Immunotherapeutics & Tumor Immunology and director of the Pediatric Neuro-oncology Program, and Behnam Badie, M.D., director of the Department of Neurosurgery.
In addition Shi will look at whether a type of small RNAs known as microRNAs are abnormally expressed in tumor tissues, particularly in brain tumor stem cells.
Named for aerospace pioneer and McDonnell Douglas founder James S. McDonnell, the foundation, which awarded more than $18.9 million in science initiative grants in 2007, carries on McDonnell’s lifelong belief in the power of science to improve people’s lives.
“The McDonnell Foundation dedicates funding to research so scientists can acquire and apply knowledge needed to address complex problems facing our and future generations,” said Susan Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., the foundation’s vice president.
Noted Shi: “This is really a great support for me. The foundation has given me the opportunity to pursue my basic research and at the same time develop something that could be useful for patients who have brain tumors.”