Spring 2014

Springboard for Discovery

Gift encourages collaboration to expand the possibilities of cancer research

Charlotte Kuperwasser

Charlotte Kuperwasser Photo: Kelvin Ma

The question of how healthy cells turn into cancerous ones has daunted researchers for decades. Then a group of Tufts biologists was able to shed light on how breast cancers develop by stepping outside of scientific convention. Charlotte Kuperwasser’s lab at Tufts School of Medicine collaborated with MIT’s Whitehead Institute to arrive at a new theory about cell plasticity, the ability of some cells to morph into different types of cells.

Kuperwasser and her colleagues tested a theory that came out of quantitative modeling conducted at the Whitehead Institute. The partnership uncovered a link between cellular plasticity and a genetic mutation in mice, possibly a key factor in how breast cancers develop.

“Working with other disciplines expands the possibilities of research,” says Kuperwasser, an associate professor in the Department of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology whose research seeks to understand the various stages of breast cancer development. Her lab has a long history of collaboration with experts in other fields. “Our group’s strengths are in the biological sciences and animal modeling, molecular biology and some biochemistry. But when it comes to things like quantitative biology, mathematical modeling or synthetic chemistry, we look to others for that expertise,” she notes.

Now a substantial gift from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation will help further advance research that bridges different scientific fields. The funding will support research in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Laboratory for the Convergence of Biomedical, Physical and Engineering Sciences at Tufts. The laboratory, which Kuperwasser directs, conducts research that bridges the life, physical and engineering sciences.

The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation has funded similar convergence programs at 12 U.S. universities, Cambridge University in the U.K. and Tel Aviv University in Israel.

“At a time when funding from traditional sources is so restricted, this gift will be a springboard to continue this kind of collaboration,” says Kuperwasser.

Kuperwasser believes interdisciplinary research has vast potential. Not only could future collaborations generate new hypotheses on the origins of cancer, they also could expand the potential for personalized medicine, producing therapies tailored to how specific types of cancer originate. “This gift is an exciting conduit,” she says. “It allows us to expand our creative borders.”

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