A few spare or misplaced atoms in a molecule can make all the difference in a cell, turning it from normal to malignant. Robert Hickey, Ph.D., is homing in on these molecular miscues to improve methods of detecting and treating cancer.
|Robert Hickey (Photo by p.cunningham)|
Hickey joined City of Hope from Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center on March 9 as an associate professor in the Division of Radiation Biology. His main research efforts focus on biomarkers — molecules and other factors that differ between normal and diseased cells.
Researchers and clinicians can use biomarkers to identify cancer cells, which is useful in diagnosis and the assessment of patients’ response to treatment. Biomarkers also may help physicians select the best treatment for a patient’s particular cancer, and they may suggest targets for new anticancer therapies.
One of the molecules he is studying is a protein called proliferating cell nuclear antigen, or PCNA. PCNA is one component of a larger molecular machine that reproduces a cell’s DNA before the cell divides.
He already has found molecular differences between the protein found in normal cells and its counterpart in cancerous cells. In cancer cells, the changes to PCNA cause mutations in DNA that can lead to cancer, as well as boost a tumor cell’s ability to thrive and spread.
Hickey has developed an antibody that binds selectively to the version of PCNA found in cancer cells, called caPCNA, but ignores the PCNA found in normal cells.
“The selective nature of our antibody could make it useful as a diagnostic tool, especially in cases where it’s difficult to tell if a sample contains cancer cells or not,” Hickey said. Ideally, pathologists could use it when looking at biopsy specimens to help identify malignant cells within them.
Hickey also aims to understand the mechanisms that drive the conversion of normal PCNA to caPCNA.
“We see caPCNA in different patient samples, so it isn’t the result of random mutations in normal PCNA,” he said. “There likely is a consistent change or pathway that gives rise to it — maybe stress or some other factor — and we’re interested in finding what that process is.”
Finding the source of PCNA’s conversion to caPCNA could lead to new therapeutic targets, he added.
Hickey also co-directs City of Hope’s Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Core facility. The facility aids researchers in studying the makeup, structure and function of proteins. Hickey will help expand its scope to search for new biomarkers, and to aid in discovery and development of new therapeutic molecules.
“We’re very excited to have Robert join our team and help lead our excellent core facility,” said Richard Jove, Ph.D., Morgan and Helen Chu Director’s Chair of Beckman Research Institute. “His strengths and experience will be very helpful in elevating our research and expanding our proteomics capabilities.”
Hickey previously was an associate professor of medicine at Indiana University. He completed postdoctoral fellowships at the Worchester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts and at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He obtained his doctoral degree in biochemistry from the City University of New York.