Professor Nancy Ip
Director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)
Normal cell behavior is governed by a hugely complex web of molecular interactions. Cancer can occur when the normal system breaks down, and unfortunately – because the system is so complicated – there are many ways for this to happen. The more we understand the links between molecular signals and tumor formation, the better positioned we are to stop it. Through fundamental molecular research, AFCR scientist Prof. Nancy Ip is working to identify new targets for treatment, and to develop new anti-cancer drugs to attack them. This may provide physicians with new methods to treat tumors when they arise, or perhaps even prevent them from forming.
Professor Nancy Ip is working to understand the complex web of molecular signals that regulate cellular processes. Cells have specialized proteins on their surface called “receptors,” that can be stimulated by specific molecules outside the cell. When receptors detect changes in the environment outside the cell, it sets off a chain-reaction that leads to changes inside the cell in a complex process called “signal transduction.” The consequences can be profound, affecting everything from which genes are expressed in the cell – genes involved in growth and division, or genes involved in self-destruction – to how the cytoskeleton is organized, which can change the cell’s physical shape and structure.
Changes in gene expression and cellular structure are key components of cancer. When normal cells transform into cancer cells, it always involves disruption of these processes. Therefore, deciphering the signal transduction pathways can provide insights into how tumors form, and help identify new targets to attack. However, the cell signaling network is so vast and complex and that it remains a huge challenge for scientists to comprehend the entire web of signaling pathways. Therefore, cancer researchers must “pick the fight” by focusing on the pathways that play critical roles in cancer so that their work could bring bigger impact for patients.
Prof. Ip’s work is focused on the Wnt/β-catenin pathway, a major signaling pathway that is crucial for tumor formation in various types of cancer, such as colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and melanoma. Prof. Ip and her team used a computer-based virtual screening approach to discover three compounds that target Wnt in certain cancer cells and cause apoptosis.
Prof. Ip believes that increasing the levels of Axin in cancer cells may stop tumors from forming. Her team is now using a technique called “molecular docking analysis” to screen small molecule candidates that can enhance Axin levels in the cell. The next step will be to perform a detailed analysis of molecular structure of the candidate molecules. This will allow Prof. Ip and her team to design and optimize the new treatment based on the newly-identified small molecules.
Impact for Patients
By understanding the molecular signaling pathways that lead to tumor formation, Prof. Ip and her team are identifying new targets for anti-cancer therapy, and developing new approaches to cancer treatment. Their work on new small-molecule drugs that can lead to increased cell death and reduced tumor formation holds promise for the development of new and more effective treatments for patients with colorectal cancer, breast cancer, melanoma and other types of cancer, giving doctors new options to save lives in generations to come.