MU biological sciences professor recognized for work with cancer cells

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 | 3:54 p.m. CST; updated 11:52 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 6, 2012

COLUMBIA — Stephen Alexander has spent a lot of time with Dictyostelium discoideum.

It's a complicated name for the simple, model organism that helped the MU biological sciences professor understand what makes cancer cells resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs.

"This is a simple organism we can do genetics in," Alexander said. "We can discover what genes and proteins are involved in making cells resistant. The reason this works is that all living things share the same genes, essentially."

Alexander tested the Dictyostelium cells to see how they responded to DNA damage from a commonly used anti-cancer drug. The research led to the discovery of a certain enzyme that determines whether cancer cells live or die.

The enzyme, sphingosine-1-phosphate lyase, can be regulated to make the chemotherapy drug cisplatin more effective, making tumors more responsive to treatment.  

"We got lucky and made an important discovery," Alexander said. "We discovered certain aspects of cellular biochemistry that no one had previously associated with resistance to this particular drug."

He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, partly because of the research. There were 701 fellows elected to the association this year. Five were from MU, according to a news release.

The others are:

  • Mark Flinn, anthropology
  • Shuqun Zhang, biochemistry
  • Kattesh Katti, chemistry
  • Nelson Cowan, psychology

Alexander's research performed on the model organism cells was replicated in human cells, but he has not tested them in humans, he said.

"We don't treat humans," he said. "We are not physicians. I think aspects of this are being tested in humans but not by us."

Alexander said he will continue to do research on how the enzyme works and ways to make tumors more responsive to chemotherapeutic drugs. 

"We want to make cancer therapy better," he said. "We can't do that until we understand why tumors are resistant to drugs. That is the research we will continue."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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