Guest post: At the core of cancer research, shared resources accelerate translation

March 2, 2012 | Posted by Guest in Core facilities |

This is a guest post by Deborah Berry, Co-Director for the Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource (HTSR) at Lombardi Cancer Center (full bio below). 

One of my colleagues at the Georgetown University Medical Center, Todd Waldman, is studying the genes that cause glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).  GBM is the most common and deadly form of primary brain tumor; it was infamously responsible for the death of Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009.  Todd’s group discovered a chromosomal deletion in a GBM cell line that resulted in the loss of a gene – STAG2 – which is important for proper segregation of genetic material during cell division.   Many cancers are associated with abnormal numbers of chromosomes (aneuploidy), so Todd suspected that the absence of STAG2 could be a source of chromosomal instability that leads to tumorigenesis.

They tested for and found STAG2 deletions or mutations in multiple GBM cell lines, they found that knocking out STAG2 in healthy cell lines led to chromosomal instability.  From there, Todd and his group wanted to assess the potential clinical relevance of their finding by looking beyond cell lines.  So, they came to our core facility – the Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource at Lombardi Cancer Center – and asked us to test primary tissue samples for loss of STAG2.  Our immunohistochemistry department stained multiple Tissue Microarrays (TMAs) containing numerous glioblastoma and Ewing’s sarcoma samples for STAG2 and discovered that it was indeed missing in a number of tumors.  You can see the results for yourself in the paper that Todd and his colleagues published in Science last year.

Projects like Todd’s are at the heart of our core facility’s mission, namely to provide our investigators with the specialized resources they need to pursue their scientific discoveries in whichever direction they may lead, resulting in the best possible scientific output.  Because we are a primary resource for human patient tissues, we end up helping a lot of our investigators as they take steps to translate their research into clinical utility.

My group has, on average, 5 years’ experience with the facility which, in the high-turnover world of investigator-driven laboratories, means that we can provide a level of knowledge and experience that really accelerates research.  We handle approximately 2000 requests for services each year.  In addition to actually doing the experimental work, I believe we have an important educational role.  We’ll have a graduate student or post-doc come down that is not familiar with IHC, but their PI believes it would enhance their project.  If they ask, we will let them shadow us so that they learn the procedure. Call me “old school,” but I believe it’s absolutely critical to understand every step of what goes into a paper that has your name on it.  We regularly sit down with investigators to discuss experimental design, data interpretation, and methodology as well as provide written support for methodology for manuscripts utilizing our facility.

Despite the internal demand, we do have occasions when we aren’t always as busy as we could be.  A few years ago, I wondered if we could get outside investigators interested in our services and maybe bring some money into the Cancer Center.  The Washington D.C. area is such a hub of biotechnology innovation, that I thought young companies, for example, could be an ideal customer base.  So, I enhanced our web site to make sure we were search-engine “optimized” and indeed, I’ve had now two separate companies and multiple academic institutes come to us and say they found us on the web and want to work with us.

When Science Exchange came along, it seemed like a great opportunity to attract new users.  As a result of listing ourselves on this platform, we’ve ended up working on a few different projects.  One investigator sent us freshly fixed mouse tissue, which we sectioned, stained, analyzed, imaged… and then sent back publication-ready data.   As a non-profit, we are not out to make money, of course, but we do want to maintain and expand our facilities as excellent resources to the scientific community, whether they are on our doorstep or across the world.

About the author

Deborah L. Berry, Co-Director for the Histopathology and Tissue Shared Resource (HTSR) at Lombardi Cancer Center, is a research scientist with a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University and a post-doctoral fellowship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Berry is a Research Assistant Profressor of Oncology with 20 years of experience in basic research and over 15 years of experience in histology. Dr. Berry has expertise in the area of programmed cell death and autophagy and was the first to demonstrate an in vivo role for autophagy in developmental cell death (Berry and Baehrecke, Cell 2007). Dr. Berry oversees the day to day operations of the HTSR and provides both consultative and technical support for projects submitted to the facility.

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