How do changes in the nutrients available in the tumor environment promote cancer growth?

Dr. Alex Muir has developed a technique to measure nutrient levels and nutrient stress within the pancreatic tumor microenvironment; this nutrient stress both provides tumor with a growth advantage and limits immune responses to tumors.  His hope is to identify new ways to metabolically target cancer cells and to reinvigorate the anti-cancer immune system.

One aspect of the tumor microenvironment is that they are nutrient poor, because tumors create abnormal blood vessels that do not provide adequate access to nutrients. This means that all the cells present in tumors are nutrient stressed; cancer cells are able to adapt and thrive in such an environment but the immune cells that might normally kill cancerous cells are not able to adapt and become dysfunctional under such starvation.  Therefore, the nutrient stressed environment creates a perfect situation for tumor growth and progression.

Dr. Muir intends to better understand nutrient stress in tumors, and how this phenomenon influences cancer and immune cell biology.  Dr. Muir has recently developed new techniques to measure the level of many nutrients and vitamins inside tumors, and has applied these techniques to study pancreatic tumors, vastly improving our understanding of nutrient stress in these tumors. He is now able to grow pancreatic cancer cells and anti-cancer immune cells in controlled systems that match tumor nutrient levels in the body and study the metabolism of these cells.

Using the Cancer Research Foundation Young Investigator Award, Dr. Muir will use his new techniques to identify the adaptations that pancreatic cancer cells require for survival under tumor nutrient stress, and to determine if blocking these adaptations will block tumor progression. In addition, he and his team will analyze how tumor nutrient levels inhibit immune cells, further considering how immune cells might be engineered or bolstered to maintain anti-tumor function even under nutrient stress. Dr. Muir’s research will provide new insight into the biochemistry that enables pancreatic tumor growth and may potentially identify novel targets for future drug development for this lethal disease.