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To ‘the next level’ of cancer research

SMHS biomedical researcher Alexei Tulin using nearly $1M U.S. Army grant to explore molecular pathways that may lead to a cure

Alexei Tulin
Alexei Tulin, a biomedical researcher at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, studies what controls the normal states of organisms at the cell level in hopes of one day finding a cure for cancer. Image courtesy of Juan Miguel Pedraza.

Cancer researchers for decades have sought magic bullets.

However, the cancer problem persists as all too many of these “cures” fall short and can cause terrible side effects.

Enter Alexei Tulin, a biomedical researcher at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences, who studies what controls the normal states of organisms at the cell level.

“We have two meters of DNA in every cell of our bodies,” says Tulin, who grew up in a small academic town dedicated to physics outside Moscow (there were several such communities around Moscow, each focused on a particular scientific field).

Using fruit flies – as scientists can’t do such testing on human beings – Tulin probes the mysteries behind the shaping and switching of DNA in cells. Tulin has been working on the molecular control mechanisms.

“I’ve been researching the organization of mammalian genomes,” says Tulin. “It’s taken us 10 years to figure out how these molecules relate to other molecules. And we found that the same pathways are also involved in the development of cancers.”

Mammalian cells

So with the help of a $900,000 U.S. Army grant, he and his research team will use mammalian cell models to explore these pathways with the goal to help cure cancer. The grant is titled “Novel Targeted Therapeutics for Castration-Resistant Prostate Cancer.” The grant was awarded through the Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity program.

“This grant is to help us take previous research to the next level,” says Tulin, who recently was named head of UND’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE)—Epigentics. The epigenetics COBRE was awarded $10.5 million in 2013 by the National Institutes of Health to research disease processes.

Tulin’s work is a prime example of research at UND that supports Goal No. 4 of the One UND Strategic Plan to “enhance discovery at a level consistent with more research-intensive universities (Carnegie R1).”

Mechanisms of cancers

Tulin uses epigenetics to explore the cellular mechanisms that regulate gene expression—a key mechanism in the development of many diseases, including cancer.

Pulling the curtain open on Tulin’s deeply complex research, the two-minute version is this: The molecules he’s studying interact with the protein involved with structural component of chromatin (itself a complicated element in cell life that’s bound up in the cell’s genetic material). Tulin discovered that this protein is involved with malignant transcription and expression of genes that want to transform cells into cancer cells.

“If we inactivate this protein, the cancer cell won’t die but will start to forget that it is cancerous, reverting to its more normal state and allowing the organism to recover on its own,” Tulin said. “We’re reverting malignant transformation back to a normal cell.”

The best news is that this potential therapy is more targeted than chemotherapy, but much less toxic.

“The cell can tolerate higher concentration of this protein,” Tulin said. “It also seems to be very specific to the protein it is designed to work on, not the shotgun approach of chemotherapy.”

Story by Juan Miguel Pedraza, for the UND Division of Research & Economic Development