Big Ideas

Christine Chio, Ph.D.

In the world of science, you have to keep an open mind. Changing your viewpoint in response to new information doesn’t make you a “flip-flopper” – it makes you a good investigator. For many years, antioxidants were thought to help limit the growth of cancer cells. However, recent studies have called this into question, hinting antioxidants might actually help fuel cancer growth and metastasis in certain types of tumors.

When Cancer and Inflammation Connect

Christine Chio, Ph.D., of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York, is leading the charge on this research. She had long been interested in the intersection of cancer and inflammation, another process thought to be influenced by antioxidants. In 2018, she received a V Scholar Grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research to study how antioxidants affect KRAS mutant cancers.

“Antioxidants are familiar to a lot of people, because you see it on TV and you hear about them on social media,” said Chio. “In general, the perception is antioxidants are good for you in a sense that they prevent aging and they prevent cancer. But what our lab has found is that if you remove antioxidants from the cancer cells, it’s actually bad for them.”

Bad news for cancer cells can mean good news for patients. At least in the case of KRAS mutant pancreatic cancer, Chio’s research suggests less is more when it comes to antioxidants.

Antioxidants get their name from the fact that they stop oxidation, a chemical reaction that can produce byproducts that damage living cells. Chio and her team wanted to know how oxidation affects proteins in a tumor. They discovered by controlling whether a protein is oxidized or not, they could change the protein’s activity. That seemingly small change could be enough to influence whether a pancreatic tumor grows a lot or just a little.

“One thing that we have specifically focused on is the translation machinery, which is a machinery within cancer cells that controls which proteins are being made and how much,” explains Chio. “We found that the types of proteins being produced in pancreatic cancer cells are mostly involved in controlling glucose metabolism. This mechanism is all being controlled by one protein, and through our collaboration with a chemist at Boston University, we are now able to develop a small molecule inhibitor that specifically blocks the activity of this protein.”

New Hope Against Pancreatic Cancer

Simply put, following the trail of oxidation helped Chio zero in on a protein that acts as a control center for many of the cancer cell’s core functions. In addition to giving scientists a more nuanced understanding of antioxidants and cancer, her team’s work has led to a new experimental drug that could bring renewed hope to patients with pancreatic cancer.

Every small step forward in the fight against pancreatic cancer is an important one. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 8.2%, one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer.

Chio notes these positive findings may never have happened if not for the V Scholar Grant she received from the V Foundation.

“It was the first grant I got in my lab, and I think it was a catalyst to everything we’ve done in the past few years,” said Chio. “Our work is expensive, and it’s high risk; so conventional funding mechanisms will not usually be supportive of this type of proposal. I’m very, very grateful that the V Foundation thought it was worthy of funding. And this has led to where we are right now.”

Chio said she hopes further insights into oxidation in cancer cells could help researchers find ways to make them more susceptible to immunotherapy, and hopefully, begin to show improvements in the survival rates for those facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.