Georgia Cancer Study Could Reshape Treatment Options for Mesothelioma

Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Ying Xu

Treatment for cancerous tumors could change significantly if recent groundbreaking research done at the University of Georgia becomes accepted.

Low oxygen level in cells — and not the widely accepted theory of genetic mutation — is what spurs the growth of cancerous tumors, according to the most recent research.

Ying Xu, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor of bioinformatics and computational biology, believes that cancer treatment should focus more on the long-term lack of oxygen in cells and less on genetic biomarkers.

“Cancer drugs try to get to the root — at the molecular level — of a particular mutation, but the cancer often bypasses it,” Xu said. “So we think that possibly genetic mutations may not be the main driver of cancer.”

Xu’s theory, he admits, runs counter to some widely accepted beliefs among the cancer research community. Previous studies have uncovered low oxygen levels as a contributing factor with cancer growth, but never as the driving force behind it.

Xu’s research team analyzed samples in seven different cancer types from the Stanford Microarray Database, using a software program to detect abnormal gene expression. It looked at liver, kidney, lung, breast, ovary, stomach and pancreatic cancers. Although mesothelioma cancer was not included in the study, many of the same theories apply.

Mesothelioma experts often cite genetic predisposition in explaining why some people are more susceptible to the ravages of asbestos, the primary cause of the cancer. About 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed annually with the disease.

Xu’s findings were based on bioinformatics analysis, which combines computational science with biology, and allows researchers to view cancer from a slightly different perspective. The study was published in the online edition of the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology.

Researchers used the gene HIF1A as the biomarker to measure the amount of molecular oxygen in a cell. All seven cancers indicated  decreased oxygen levels in cells. The lower levels interrupted the way cells normally convert food into energy. It causes cancer cells to work harder to grow and reproduce faster than normal cells.

“This could be a key driver of cancer,” said Xu.

Current cancer research often focuses on counteracting genetic mutations with designer drug treatments. Xu said that this new cancer-growth model can explain why many cancers become drug resistant so quickly.

He said researchers in the future should focus more on methods to prevent the low oxygen levels. It could cause a significant shift in cancer research.

Also involved in the study were Juan Cui, Xizeng Mao, and Victor Olman, all from the University of Georgia. Phil Hastings of Baylor College of Medicine  participated in the research.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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