TORONTO — An Israeli scientist funded by the Israel Cancer Research Fund said he was confident that there will continue to be more cures for many types of cancer.
“I think that there are already many cures for cancer, and there are many more that will be coming up. You cannot expect a cure for cancer, you can expect many cures for many types of cancer.
“Each cancer has its own personality and own characteristics,” said Dr. Yoav Henis, of the department of neurobiochemistry at Tel Aviv University. He was in Toronto last week to speak to potential and current donors about developments in his research.
“What will eventually happen – and we are already starting to see it – is that [treatment] will be tailor-made for patients of cancer.”
He said that if a person learns that he or she has cancer, he or she should have genetic profiling done to determine which cocktail of drugs would be the best for treatment.
“It should be tailor-made, not one cure for all,” he stressed.
Henis has been receiving funding for cancer research from the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), a charitable organization with chapters across North America that provides funding to support cancer research in Israel, for the past 14 years. He spoke to The CJN about the kind of research he and his team have been conducting.
He explained that he uses biophysical methods to look at biological processes that happen in cells that make them become cancerous.
He said there are three systems that they focus on. They examine cells that express proteins that cause the cells to proliferate or divide in an uncontrolled manner.
“There are proteins that are called oncoproteins. When they go astray, they start to signal out an external cue, like a hormone, and this can contribute to the development of cancer,” he said.
Henis and his research team – made up of a technician he has been working with for 26 years and eight PhD and master’s students – also examine growth-inhibitory hormones that are meant to “start cascades of signalling when they are bound to specific receptor cells. The signals are supposed to cue the cells to stop growing, stop dividing,” he said.
“The thing is that in these systems, when one of the proteins in the cascade stops functioning, you lose all the growth inhibition and it is like a car losing its brakes and it can contribute to the development of cancer.”
He said he is also working to understand the motion of cancer cells – “how cells move about, how they leave their original place and go to wander about, which is actually related to metastases.
“You can have a very contained cancer, where the cells don’t wander away. They remain where they are so you have one focus of cancer which makes it much easier to treat. On the other hand, when you have these cells from abnormal tissue start to wander about and get to other places in the body… it gets completely out of control and actually, there is no return from that,” Henis said.
He said that with the funding from ICRF, he is able to continue investigating why a mutated form of Raf, an oncoprotein (a cell that divides uncontrollably), induces the mislocalization of a molecule, called p27, in a growth-inhibitory hormone called TGF-b (transforming growth factor-beta).
“A molecule that is involved with growth inhibition by TGF-b called p27, induces growth inhibition. It turns out that oncogenic Raf [a tumour-developing mutated form of the oncoprotein Raf] causes p27 to go out from the nucleus to the cytoplasm.”
He said that as long as p27 is in the nucleus, TGF-b should send signals to the molecule and activate growth inhibition.
“But p27 is not in the nucleus anymore, so the signalling goes there but there is nobody home… It turns out when p27 is in the cytoplasm, then it can have a completely different effect and actually, it helps the cells to move about [and spread cancer]. Now we are trying to look in more details about how Raf induced this mislocalization of p27 from the nucleus to the cytoplasm.”
Henis said that he does share his research with Canadian doctors and has maintained a relationship with Dr. Sergio Grinstein, a scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children. Grinstein doesn’t do cancer research, but is interested in the interactions of the specific proteins that Henis examines.
He also stays in contact with Dr. Nils Petersen, formerly the vice-president for research and development at the University of Western Ontario and currently the general manager of the Canadian National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton.
In addition to sharing his findings, Henis also spoke about how great the need for funding continues to be.
“Funding for research in Israel is much less than here. You apply for a grant [in Israel] the same as you would apply here, but the amount that you get is much smaller. I run my lab – and I am considered to do very well in recruiting grants for the research – I’m running the lab for something like $130,000 a year,” which includes his salary and the salaries of his technicians.
He said that when the ICRF provides them with an extra $30,000 to $40,000 a year, it makes a big difference.
He said he’s able to stretch the money he gets from the ICRF because it goes further in Israel than it would in Canada.
He said the students get paid much less in Israel than they do in Canada, but that doesn’t compromise the quality of the student.
Henis boasted that two of his former students went to posts at Harvard University, another went to New York University and all returned to Israel to continue working in science and medicine.
“[The funding from ICRF] enables cancer researchers to work, enables young cancer researchers to develop… to start to build their own labs, and it develops the most precious thing that we have in Israel, which is actually the people, the scientists, themselves,” Henis said.
“That is actually the only real asset that we have. We don’t have any advantage in natural resources. This is our natural resource and the ICRF helps develop that.”