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How cancer hijacks cell biology to thrive — and how it might be stopped

Matthew Pratt receives major awards for finding clues to cancer’s strength

Matthew Pratt,
Matthew Pratt's research aims at understanding and stymieing cancer. (USC Photo/Susan Bell)

Six years into his career at USC, Matthew Pratt is on a roll — gaining attention for cutting-edge research aimed at understanding and stemming cancer.

Pratt’s research focuses on glycosylation, the modification of proteins by carbohydrates (i.e., sugars).

Pratt, an assistant professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is interested in how glycosylation is linked to glycolysis, the process that the body uses to break down sugars to create the fuel that keep cells running. Cancer is able to co-opt glycosylation to stay alive and grow.

Cancer cells use glycolysis in a counterintuitive manner, in part because they live under extreme oxidative stress from having to grow so quickly, and yet it does not kill them.

Researchers have found that cancer cells are able to slow down glycosylation so that it yields more of the specific types of fuel that they need to survive. Further, they’re able to turn off the “self-destruct” switch that oxidative stress would otherwise activate, prolonging their lives.

Pratt studies the biochemical reactions behind these processes with an eye toward using or developing pharmaceuticals to interrupt them — taking the teeth out of cancer.

“We hope that by understanding how the well-established changes in cancer glycolysis is translated into protein glycosylation that we will both discover important fundamental biochemical mechanisms and identify places where we can potentially block this link for the development of therapeutics,” Pratt said.

Within the past six months, Pratt, an assistant professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has received three high-profile awards, representing more than $1 million in encouragement and funding to support his ongoing efforts. All three are targeted at young researchers with promising careers.

“These young investigator awards are a measure of the excitement the research community has for the highly innovative approaches Pratt’s lab are taking — we are delighted that he is receiving this recognition,” said Stephen Bradforth, chair of the Department of Chemistry.

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How cancer hijacks cell biology to thrive — and how it might be stopped

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