University City

UNCC lab hunts for cancer-causing agents

Dr. Christine Richardson paused at the door to her laboratory, then offered a caution before twisting its knob.

"I can't promise you any cures for cancer today."

But inside the lab, the fixed attention of her researchers - peering through microscopes and scrutinizing liquids in test tubes - showed clearly that, if not today, then maybe a cure will come tomorrow.

Richardson, a geneticist who studies cancers of the blood, runs a lab in UNC Charlotte's biology department that examines the role DNA plays in cancer.

Her team of researchers, many of them doctoral or post-doctoral students, conducts tests on hundreds of environmental agents. They're trying to determine which ones may be causing the breaks in DNA strands that often are seen in patients with certain cancers, such as leukemia.

"I'm interested in that first step," said Richardson. "What makes the DNA break, and what makes the chromosomes then come back together incorrectly?"

The answers, she said, may lead to prevention and even a possible cure for leukemia some day.

In cancers such as infant leukemia, which strikes children less than a year old, scientists suspect environmental agents introduced in utero may be part of the cause.

Narrowing down which agents are harmful could prevent future leukemia cases.

Genetic blueprints

To understand the focus of Richardson's work, a general knowledge of DNA is helpful.

Each normal cell in the body is made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes. Strands of DNA - our genetic blueprints - are packaged in those chromosomes.

Scientists have learned that certain environmental agents, when introduced to the body, can cause our chromosomes to shuffle out of order. "They're ordered, sort of like words in a sentence on a page, and it all makes sense," Richardson said of the regimented lineup chromosomes usually follow. "But if two of those break and then recombine, right where those have come together you've messed up your sentences."

The blood's stem cells, which produce disease-fighting white blood cells and oxygen-carrying red blood cells, can be affected by the shuffle. When that happens, they begin creating abnormal white and red blood cells, which don't do their jobs.

"It's cells going haywire," said Richardson.

Hundreds of tests

In the lab, hundreds of potential cancer-promoting agents are slid under Richardson's microscopes. Industrial compounds, over-the-counter supplements and a family of chemotherapy drugs linked to causing secondary cancers in cancer patients are among the agents being watched for their effects on DNA.

The researchers use specially engineered cells that glow green if they become rearranged to signal when an agent is deemed harmful. Tests on each agent take around two weeks to complete.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that 44,600 people were diagnosed with some form of leukemia last year. Although the number of leukemia cases has risen over the decades, Richardson said, it's difficult to tell whether there's more leukemia or it's being detected earlier.

"There are many cancers that do appear to be on the rise in our industrial age, the past 50 to 60 years," she said.

Determining which agents are harmful could mean fewer cancers in the future. "Some of the very aggressive types are very difficult to treat," said Richardson. "That's why we would like to prevent them before they happen."