New Research Targets Cancer’s ‘Achilles’ Heel’

By Amanda MorrisNovember 7, 2017

Northwestern Engineering’s Vadim Backman has developed an effective new strategy for treating cancer, which has wiped out the disease to near completion in cellular cultures in the laboratory.

The treatment works by controlling chromatin, a group of macromolecules — including DNA, RNA, and proteins — that houses genetic information within cells and determines which genes get suppressed or expressed. In the case of cancer, chromatin has the ability to regulate the capacity of cancer cells to find ways to adapt to treatment by expressing genes that allow the cancer cells to become resistant to treatment. 

Backman’s solution alters chromatin’s structure in a way that prevents cancer from evolving to withstand treatment, making the disease an easier target for existing drugs. If the cells cannot evolve to resist chemotherapy, for example, they die. After having shown great potential to fight cancer in cellular cultures, the treatment is now undergoing studies in an animal model.

“If you think of genetics as hardware, then chromatin is the software,” said Backman, the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Complex diseases such as cancer do not depend on the behavior of individual genes, but on the complex interplay among tens of thousands of genes. By targeting chromatin, we can modulate global patterns in gene expression.”

Supported by the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program and Northwestern’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, the research was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering. In addition to Backman, Igal Szleifer, the Christina Enroth-Cugell Professor of Biomedical Engineering; Shohreh Shahabi, professor of gynecologic oncology in the Feinberg School of Medicine; and Thomas O'Halloran, the Morris Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, are the paper’s senior authors and are all members of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University. Backman is also a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and the Lurie Cancer Center, where he leads its Cancer and Physical Sciences Research Program. Read more