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UCI in the Fight Against Cancer

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Through cancer care and research, UCI has found ways to improve current treatments and new, drug-free innovations to serve the diverse population of Orange County. The UCI Cancer Center, established in 1989, quickly grew to esteemed status in the medical community by earning a National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation in 1994 and Comprehensive Cancer Center status in 1997. 

Later that year, it was renamed in honor of the Chao family, who have supported Orange County healthcare for decades. As of June 2021, the Chao family’s contributions to UCI Health amounted to $50 million since 1995. The Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center (CFCC) in the city of Orange is the county’s first and only NCI-designated Cancer Center, which operates to treat, research, prevent and diagnose the disease.

Additionally, there is a designated Cancer Research Institute (CRI) located on the UCI campus where over 60 faculty members are actively researching various cancer topics, treatments and therapies. One such faculty member is biological sciences professor Dr. Aimee L. Edinger.

The Edinger Lab is in the process of developing targeted therapies that disrupt the growth and replication cycle of cancer cells and can be used concurrently with existing treatments. 

As reported on the Edinger Lab’s website, one successful breakthrough was the development of SH-BC-893 (893). This natural, drug-like molecule prevents nutrients like nucleotides and proteins from entering cells and disables lysosomes, the structures where these nutrients are “digested” by the cell. 

In typical cells, this nutrient deprivation triggers a cellular hibernation mode, but a genetic mutation in cancerous cells renders them unable to hibernate. Consequently, cancer cells exposed to 893 “starve” to death. A current research focus of the lab is to identify the proteins that enable 893 to perform its observed function. This will give further insight into how the molecule works, which Edinger says is not yet completely understood. 

Another focus of the lab is finding ways to inhibit a cancerous process called macropinocytosis. Macropinocytosis occurs when cancer cells create physical “tidal waves” of cell membrane to collect and utilize nutrients from dead cancer cells. In February 2020, Edinger and her colleague Dr. Vaishali Jayashankar published a research paper showing that the more necrotic tissue present in a tumor, the more advanced the disease is. Although it seems counterintuitive, this happens because there is more available sustenance for the active cancer cells to continue their replication cycle.

Edinger is also attempting to implement inhibitors of macropinocytosis to prevent cancer cells from harvesting nutrients from neighboring corpses. Most standard chemotherapy treatments kill tumor cells by creating nutrient stress, such as damaging their DNA. The regeneration process costs a lot of energy, which cancer cells can’t spare, ultimately leading to their death. 

However, since macropinocytic cells scavenge nutrients without using significant energy, they are unresponsive to conventional cancer therapies. The Edinger Lab aims to use these inhibitors, in combination with other cancer therapies, to increase the efficacy of otherwise unsuccessful treatments. This double-approach is expected to be minimally toxic in comparison to chemotherapy because normal cells are typically not macropinocytic. This means that only the cancer cells will be targeted. 

Edinger and her team have successfully tested some of their findings on mice, and they are currently in the process of working their way up to clinical trials in humans. 

For more information on ways Edinger and other UCI faculty are fighting cancer, visit the CRI website.

Lauren Le is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at laurenl9@uci.edu.