USC professor receives grant to study liver cancer
Bangyan Stiles, associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, has been awarded a five-year grant totaling more than $1 million from the National Cancer Institute to look at a novel approach to understand the tumor formation process and to thwart liver cancer development.
Stiles’ research has shown that the development of liver tumors is a multistage process. Her work focuses on the role played by PTEN, a gene present in almost every cell of the body, and AKT2, a signaling molecule required for the development of fatty liver disease, a precursor to liver cancer. Liver cancer is often preceded by fatty liver disease.
“Fatty liver causes injury to the liver,” Stiles said. “This then allows cancer to develop if the patient has the precursor cancer cells.”
About 3 percent of fatty liver patients go on to develop liver cancer, a number that is rising along with the prevalence of fatty liver, which is currently estimated to affect some 30 percent of all American adults. Stiles looks at the molecule “conversations” that prompt the progression to liver cancer in an effort to find ways to prevent and treat the disease.
Stiles has developed a unique mouse model that lacks PTEN. Without PTEN, fatty liver disease develops and, where precursor cells exist, liver cancer follows. The researcher hopes to answer the question of what exactly makes this happen on the molecular level and how the process can be disrupted. Along with the lack of PTEN, the AKT2 molecule must be present in the cells for fatty liver to develop. Without this molecule, fatty liver doesn’t occur, which in turn prevents the development of liver cancer.
“We are looking at how AKT2 controls fatty liver and the signaling that promotes the tumor cells to grow and become cancer,” Stiles said. “We study events at the molecular level [that] cause tumor cells to become cancer. Our goal is to understand this signaling so we can stop the process from proceeding to cancer.”
This work also points to the importance of diet and exercise, said Stiles, who noted that obesity is a risk factor for developing fatty liver. In addition, she said that travel poses a big risk, as hepatitis is also a major risk for developing fatty liver.
“Our work is designed to ultimately prevent fatty liver progress to cancer and to treat early stage liver cancer,” Stiles said. “But I hope more Americans recognize the risk of fatty liver disease and follow a diet and exercise regimen that will help keep them from getting it.”