Focus Areas

The mission of the Department of Cancer Biology is to identify and understand the causes of cancer, to develop innovative approaches to reduce cancer incidence, to create and test novel and more effective therapies, and to translate these findings into clinical care for the benefit of patients.

Research in our department is highly collaborative and is potentiated through close interactions with other basic science departments and translated through clinical collaborations.

Our faculty members are aligned into eight research focus areas that address cancer development, progression and treatment.

Cancer disparities

While cancer affects everyone, certain groups have higher rates of cancer cases, deaths and health complications. These differences can be associated with genetics, sex, racial and ethnic populations, socioeconomic status, or specific geographic areas. Studying the factors that lead to cancer disparities leads to more-effective prevention and treatment approaches for the affected populations.

Cancer stem cells

The stem cell theory of cancer proposes that among the many different types of cells within a cancer, there exists a subpopulation of cells called cancer stem cells that multiply indefinitely, are resistant to chemotherapy, and are thought to be responsible for relapse after therapy. Cancer stem cells also give rise to highly metastatic cells that spread to other organs and tissues within the body. A deeper understanding of cancer stem cells is leading to better implementation of existing anti-cancer therapies and identification of new approaches that target the cancer stem cells specifically.

Cancer systems biology

Cancer is a complex disease with many molecular, genetic and cellular causes. Considering these causes as a system of interactions can lead to a better understanding of the processes involved in the development of cancer and response to therapies. Cancer systems biology integrates advanced experimental models, insights from genome sequencing and other large-scale data projects, and computational models to create unified models of cancer behavior.

Oncogenic gene dysregulation and carcinogenesis

Cancer initiates from genetic alterations, including mutations, deletions and copy number gains, that function to activate cancer-promoting pathways or to block processes that normally inhibit cancer development. Through better understanding of pro- and anti-cancer signaling processes and how they become dysregulated in carcinogenesis and tumor progression, our team can improve biological tools for clinicians and devise molecularly targeted therapies to intervene.

Precision cancer medicine and translational therapeutics

Cancers develop and respond to therapies differently from one patient to the next. A better understanding of the specific processes driving cancer growth and spread in an individual patient allows for tailored therapeutic strategies that are more effective with minimal side effects. Profiling the mutations and abnormalities that drive a tumor, in combination with development of experimental models that assess the specific responses of cancer cells to therapeutics that target those abnormalities, has dramatically improved outcomes in many cancer types.

Tumor immunology and immunotherapy

Therapeutic strategies that stimulate the immune system to target cancer cells can lead to long-lasting tumor regression and minimize relapse. Integrated efforts of laboratory researchers and clinicians are leading to improved knowledge of how the immune system interacts with cancer cells and how immune processes can be intentionally manipulated for therapeutic effect.

Tumor invasion and metastasis

A fundamental property of malignant tumor cells is the ability to invade surrounding tissues and to metastasize to other organs. These abilities underlie the majority of cancer-associated deaths. While invasion and metastasis are often thought of as the final stages of tumor development, recent studies have shown that tumor spread can occur even at early stages of tumor development, sometimes even before the primary tumor has been identified. Development of therapies targeting invasion and metastasis has the promise to significantly reduce cancer mortality.

Tumor microenvironment

Tumors require complex interactions with surrounding blood vessels, immune cells, supportive tissue structures and cell types that are distinct to the tumor site in order to grow, become invasive and metastasize. Tumors influence their microenvironment by releasing soluble signals that lead to degradation and remodeling of the tissue structures that constrain their growth. Targeting the interactions of tumors with the microenvironment is an important and developing area of study.