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Exploring New Ways to Make Cancer Cells More Susceptible to Radiation Therapy

Dr. Randall Kimple

Autophagy is the process by which cells break down and recycle their worn out or dysfunctional components to generate energy and deal with cellular stress. It’s essential for promoting healthy cell function. However, because the process also occurs in cancerous cells and increases in the presence of stressors such as radiation, it may hinder the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

For the past two years, researchers in the Kimple Lab in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, have been working on preliminary research studying the effects of radiation on autophagy. They hope to find ways to intervene and improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

“If we can block autophagy, we may be able to increase the number of cancer cells killed by a given dose of radiation,” says Dr. Randy Kimple, DHO assistant professor, who presented preliminary findings of this project at a recent Radiation Research Society meeting. “We’re starting to understand how radiation turns on autophagy and the pathways that are involved so that we can more effectively intervene in that process.”

This research project, was recently awarded a four-year, $750,000 grant from the American Cancer Society. Newly hired postdoctoral research associate Jaimee Eckers, who has a PhD from the University of Iowa’s Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program, will take on a major role in the project.

“We were fortunate to recruit her to come here and join us to work on this project. We hope that she will be able to apply some of her skills and expertise to this exciting project,” Kimple says. “Jaimee has a background in ‘classical radiation biology’—the basics of how radiation kills cells and how cells respond to radiation-induced damage. Her skills add perfectly to this project and should allow us to approach this work in a creative and powerful way to advance this research more quickly than we might have otherwise.”

The project involves the study potential of several compounds to inhibit autophagy in the presence of radiation. Still in its early stages, the project currently involves the study of these compounds in vitro tissue samples. As the project progresses, it will use animal models.

“We hope that this project ends up providing data that would support using some of these drugs in clinical trials and ultimately improve the care of cancer patients,” Kimple says.