Through Small Grants The Prouty Fuels Discovery
The Prouty is coming. You may have heard about the two-day athletic event where participants bike, walk, row or golf to raise money for cancer research. But what does that funding do?
“The Prouty grants are like kindling that fuel discovery,” says Scott Gerber, program director for the Cancer Mechanisms Research Program and an associate professor of molecular systems biology and of biochemistry and cell biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.
The Prouty Pilot Project Program allows scientists at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC) to explore ideas that might not be funded otherwise. One of these ideas may eventually result in a new treatment or improve scientists’ understanding of cancer. Gerber, who is also the honorary co-chair of this year’s Prouty, explains that the pilot grants fuel preliminary data that allows researchers to submit grant proposals for larger federal funding. Over the 10-year life of the pilot program, a one-dollar investment has proven to return $23 in additional funding.
Gerber, himself, benefited from a Prouty pilot grant. In 2016, Gerber and Yolanda Sanchez, an associate professor of molecular systems biology and associate director for Basic Science at the NCCC, received funding from the program. They used mass spectrometry to determine the cellular target of several promising drug and drug-like molecules. Understanding the molecule’s biological interactions with the cancerous cells improves its chances of becoming a viable treatment.
Recently, Gerber and his colleagues received a generous NIH grant to expand their initial research. This grant would not have been possible without funding from The Prouty Pilot Program.
Proteins – the next frontier of cancer research
Gerber believes that the characterizing of human proteins, called proteomics, will provide new avenues of treatment for cancer. Since the human genome was sequenced, doctors have been able to tailor some of a patient’s cancer treatment to the mutation or mutations responsible for that specific cancer (this is called precision medicine). But understanding the genome was only the beginning. At its most basic level, the genome contains instructions for building proteins, and proteins present in the cell also affect how genes are expressed.
Specific proteins help healthy cells know when to stop reproducing. A cancerous cell, however, reproduces with a deadly fecundity. “I liken cancer to a car that has lost its brakes, and its accelerator is stuck on,” explains Gerber.
Healthy cells have several checkpoints during cell division, the process in which one cell splits into two identical cells. These checkpoints ensure that all the proceeding steps were completed correctly – especially the copying of the cell’s genetic material. If a normal cell notices an error, the cell stops dividing. Cancerous cells, however, do not stop at these checkpoints. Either the cells have a mutation damaging the checkpoint, or more commonly, the cancerous cells have learned to turn off the checkpoints.
These cellular checkpoints are constructed from protein molecules. To determine which proteins are involved in the checkpoint, Gerber uses a technique called mass spectrometry to analyzed hundreds of thousands of proteins at once. The NIH grant will allow Gerber to explore these proteins and begin to characterize them. If the proteins involved in helping deter cell division are found, then it’s possible they could be used to stop the spread of cancer. Gerber optimistically says, “We are advancing cancer cures and cancer research.” The Prouty plays an important role providing funding for exploring these new ideas.