Suzie Chen – Molecular Mechanisms of Melanoma Development

(music playing) Suzie Chen: My name is Suzie Chen, I’m a professor in the Ddepartment of Chemical Biology, School of Pharmacy, Rutgers. The main focus of my research is on the molecular mechanism of melanoma development. My goal is to understand how the disease comes about. If you understand the basis of how the diseases evolve, how they change, then perhaps you can design better ways of combat. So, we have used mouse models as a model system to investigate using cell lines in culture, using animals as the next step once we discover something in culture cells to see how it reflects the in vivo situation and hopefully we will translate the finding to the human system and I do a lot of work with investigator over at the Cancer Institute at New Jersey who we actually have translate a few findings into then human system where we have several clinical trials that’s based on our pre-clinical work here in my laboratory.

The main thing that we try to discover is really based on work that my lab has uncovered where we identify a normal neuronal receptor that deals with learning and memory, when it’s inappropriately expressed in melanocytes, the melanocyte are the cells that your skin gives you the pigmentation in the skin. So, normally the cells, they do not express as a receptor. So when they express and the receptor is turned on, a consequence is tumor development in culture cells. So this receptor normally is expressed in neuronal cells. You actually, if you don’t have the receptor, or if you genetically sort of delete this receptor, or make it inactive, a consequence that in the neural is deficiency in learning and memory. So that’s only in the neural. But when it’s inappropriately expressed in melanocytes, in skin cells, the consequence is tumor development. So it kind of show you the expression of gene in different cell type actually have different consequences. We went back in the cell lines and asked, do you see this type of expression not only in the mouse system, but also in human melanoma cells? We found that that’s indeed the case from the human cell lines, we went on to look at human biopsy samples and stuff that’s taken from the patient that has entered the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

We also saw the expression of the receptor in several biopsies, then we knew that only, not only is it expressed in the mouse, in the model system, we actually found the human relevance in not only the human cell lines but also the biopsy samples that we looked at. My main thing is to investigate, you know, how does this actually occurs, how does the expression of a receptor, it gets turned on. It’s difficult to do because even though you want to go back to the human and ask, how does it turn on in a human, I know in the mouse, well I kind of made it that way, but to go back and forth between human and mouse, you know sometimes one thing you see in the mouse system, they don’t always translate into the human system.

So, it’s a little bit tough, and plus the work you’re doing in culture cells, it doesn’t mean it’s always going to reflect in the same in a real human, because when you grow cells in culture, a lot of things will change, so perhaps expression of this receptor is one of those consequences, but that’s why what’s important for us to look at biopsy samples, so the conclusion that we draw, again, is that while we observe in a model system in a mouse system, actually so that we prove that it actually happens in a human system, so you know, a lot of things you learn on a model system, then you want to go back to ask, does it actually this happen in the human or not, because after all, human health is really the major goal, you know, of all of us doing basic research.

The application of my work, you know, melanoma, believe it or not, it’s a very, very aggressive disease. If you discover it early, you go to a dermatologist or surgeon, they take it out, you can be disease free forever, perhaps, for 10 years, for 20 years, it depends how quickly you go to the dermatologist, how early you have that mole, whatever, removed. If you don’t, if you just ignore that, it will then spread to other places. Once that happens, the chance that you will liven beyond 5 years is very, very small. Even though you have the primary tumor removed early on, it may come back. When it comes back, it becomes a very, very aggressive disease also. It kills people, so there’s still a really great need to try to find the so called cure for melanoma, because we’re just not quite there yet, you know. Cancer cells are very smart. You hit them with one thing, they turn around and they change and you have a totally different thing to look at it. So what we’ll continue to understand how this receptor, just by its expression, can elucidate this entire pathway of becoming a tumor and becoming a tumor that’s very, very metastatic.

So we tried to find using our model system to understand that and then go back to the human, ask, does this also really apply as well? So as I say before it’s kind of back and fourth, you go from the library to the clinic and back and then just by using the knowledge that you gain to go a small incremental step all the time. I have had many graduate students working under my supervision from various programs for the molecular biosciences, to the toxicology, pharmacology program and I’ll have to say that each of my graduate students, when they finish with me, they all have secure, very good jobs.

Some of them are in academia but most of them are in industry and I also have had undergraduate students, even high school students who have come to my lab, many of them over the years, either during the school year or in the summer, but through the school of Pharmacy there is a summer undergraduate fellowship that undergraduate students from not only Rutgers but really any place that can apply, and they will spend something like 10 weeks in the laboratory, performing work. As basic scientists, it is gratifying for me to know that my work actually, perhaps, has made a small contributions to human health, but it doesn’t happen all the time, so, I consider myself pretty lucky in that aspect. (music playing).