Know your fix: Why binge-drinking gets me up in the morning

Why do you get up in the morning? Maybe you think your work is fun, or that your colleagues are great. My answer is that (in addition to a fun job with great colleagues) I enjoy the rush when my research finally yields a tiny puzzle piece of new information. I get out of bed each morning to add new knowledge to the bigger picture of how cells work.

I work as a PhD student in the field of molecular cell biology in a cancer research centre. How my work is relevant should be simple enough to explain to colleagues, friends and grandparents – at least a little simpler for me than for a theoretical physicist. Still, I dread the discussion with not only friends and family, who ask what I am using their tax money for, but also fellow scientists that do more applied research than me.

My research interest is cell drinking, a process that is also referred to by the following mouthful: macropinocytosis. Cell drinking was discovered in the 1920s, but for almost 100 years we have not come much closer to understanding how this process is regulated. I investigate how the cell knows that it is thirsty and also when it should stop drinking. So far, one regulator seems to be a specific kind of fat. When I block the production of the fat, the cells stop drinking.

Recently, cell drinking has moved into the spotlight. Other researchers have found that some cancer types use the process to increase uptake of nearby nutrients, and to boost tumor growth and survival. In other cancer types the cancer cells cannot stop to drink, and eventually burst from drinking too much!

My aim is to figure out how cancer cells regulate their drinking habits, and then find a way to manipulate the process to benefit cancer patients.

Cancer is a very heterogeneous disease. There are many different types of cancer, and they vary in the underlying molecular networks that drive tumor development. In basic research, such as what I do, the focus is to study the biology of the cancer cells. Basic research will increase our understanding of the networks that make a cancer cell dangerous, and this knowledge will help other scientists develop better and more specific drugs.

In my project, I have two different ways to go in the future. I could try to use the inhibitor that block cell drinking and develop it into a drug. With some luck and many years of experiments, this could maybe be a candidate new drug for some patients. Or I could leave this task to other scientists, experts with more experience in this kind of research. By leaving the drug development to specialised colleagues, I can focus on my strength. My strength of puzzling little pieces of information together to understand what makes cells drink.

Basic and applied researchers should take their respective puzzle pieces and start puzzling together. The goal is that everyone can jump out of bed motivated, because their individual puzzle pieces are valuable.

And maybe, just maybe, future scientists can use the knowledge to reprogram cancer cells to binge-drink until they burst.

By Hélène Spangenberg
Published Aug. 28, 2018 2:06 PM - Last modified Aug. 28, 2018 2:06 PM

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