January 2017 Issue
February 01, 2017

With help from ACS grant, SUNY scientist seeks ways to improve cancer treatments

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry at UBuffalo, uses yeast proteins as the basis for her research to improve cancer treatments. Photo by Dennis Stierer.
Caption: Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry at UBuffalo, uses yeast proteins as the basis for her research to improve cancer treatments. Photo by Dennis Stierer.

The sixth-floor lab in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science at SUNY's University at Buffalo reeks of yeast.

"People say it either smells like bread or beer," said scientist Jennifer Surtees, an associate professor and a member of United University Professions, NYSUT's affiliate that represents SUNY faculty and staff.

Surtees labors long hours in the lab to help find ways to improve cancer treatment by studying genetic pathways in yeast.

She is using a four-year, $792,000 grant from the American Cancer Society, which raises money through events such as the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks. NYSUT members have raised $13.3 million since 2002, making the statewide union a flagship sponsor of the walks.

Surtees also has had National Institutes of Health funding to study mismatch repair, a system within the cell that corrects errors that occur when the cell copies or replicates its DNA.The mismatch repair system searches for, detects and directs the replacement (or repair) of bases in DNA that are mispaired. The mismatch repair system is like a spell check, she said."In order to correct the typo you have to find it."

Defects in mismatch repair, Surtees explained, lead to autosomal dominant cancer syndrome, called Lynch Syndrome. "You have an 80 percent chance of getting colorectal cancer in males or females, or endometrial cancer if you're a woman."

Other scientists work on mismatch repair, but Surtees' team is taking a different approach by studying multiple pathways in parallel.

Working in a two-room lab with vials and burners, dials and coolers, Surtees and her crew of PhD candidates use the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. They purify yeast proteins and perform genetic experiments with yeast cells to study DNA repair pathways. DNA repair proteins recognize many different types of DNA lesions — those "typos" Surtees mentioned — and then target the lesion for the appropriate repair pathway — the "autocorrect."

"Before a cell divides you have to copy all the DNA within that cell, so each daughter cell gets a copy of the DNA," Surtees explained. "That's called DNA replication. The enzyme that replicates DNA sometimes makes mistakes."

"We have dozens of different DNA repair pathways, all in a cell at the same time. How does a cell know which repair pathway to use and when?" Surtees asks. "We're studying multiple pathways of repair."

The focus of Surtees' ACS grant is to look at the building blocks of DNA in the cell. "Our DNA is made up of deoxynucleotide triphosphates or dNTPs, the As, Cs, Gs and Ts that are always mentioned when talking about DNA," explained Surtees, who carries infinite questions in her head. "You need enough dNTPs to completely copy your DNA. However, if dNTP levels are elevated or altered, mutation rates increase — the enzymes that copy the DNA tend to make more mistakes.

"Cancer cells grow quickly and have elevated dNTPs," she said. "Because they're growing so quickly they're replicating DNA frequently. What is that doing to cellular fitness and genome stability? Does it increase the rate of mutations in cancer cells, allowing them to proliferate even more? And furthermore, can we take advantage of that to improve cancer treatment? Is there a pathway we can knock out? Can we hit a cancer cell with a chemotherapeutic and at the same time knock out another cellular pathway more sensitive to drugs, so that the chemotherapy is more effective and/or more efficient, and cancer cells start to die at a lower dose?"

Down the hall from the lab, where grad students are busy plating cells and logging data into computers, is a minus 80-degree freezer where thousands of vials of yeast are stored for the experiments.

"This could take a whole career," she said, smiling, as if 30 years were just a short jaunt. "You go at it one question at a time. You almost always find stuff you didn't expect. The most exciting is finding stuff nobody else knows yet."

Amy Delia, ACS director of division communications, says she's often "blown away by the passion and brilliance" of the researchers she meets.

"Many of them are personally driven with a connection to cancer," she said. "THIS is making a difference in the fight against cancer."

Surtees takes science on the road, sharing her work with K-12 teachers from the Buffalo public schools. Students also come to the campus lab to perform their own mutation experiments with yeast, growing cells and colonies.

"One of the important things as a scientist is to communicate with the public ... to make people literate in science," said Surtees, who teaches cell biology, genetics and protein structure and function to graduate students.

Soon, she said, people will have their DNA sequenced to see if they have a predisposition to a variety of conditions such as heart disease, or neurodegenerative diseases. Already, genome sequencing is available to test for cancer predisposition, diagnosis and treatment. This is the key to precision medicine — with personalized prevention and treatment.

For more info

The American Cancer Society reports it has spent more than $4.5 billion since 1946 for cancer research, making it the largest private, nonprofit funder of cancer research in the U.S. Funding is primarily from donations, which average $50. The ACS has 60 full-time cancer researchers, and supports an additional 800 researchers across the country.

ACS-funded researchers have played a role in nearly every major cancer breakthrough, said Amy Delia, ACS director of division communications, including developing the pap test and mammography; and shedding light on the connection between tobacco use and cancer, and obesity and cancer.

"We currently fund researchers looking into ways to prevent breast cancer cells from multiplying by lulling them into a permanent sleep, known as senescene. We also are funding investigators looking at immunotherapy's promise and using nanoscale technology to monitor cancer," Delia said.

She said 74 percent of ACS income goes directly to mission programs, which includes research, patient service programs, advocacy work, educational outreach and more.

To learn more, visit www.cancer.org/research/how-american-cancer-society-research-funding-works.html.