“Yves”dropping on Tumor Cells
Jan. 30, 2017
To hear Yves Chabu tell it, his scientific focus on how cellular communication influences tumor growth blends two of his early interests.
“I had two passions when I was growing up. I liked diplomacy, the art of conflict resolution and interpersonal communication. But I was also really interested in medicine or clinical care. When the body is broken, because of some internal conflicts, how do we fix it?” says Chabu.
Tumor biology, he says, captures both these interests. He explains that, due to genetic insults, some cells in the body stop listening to their healthy neighbors and grow uncontrollably. This sets up a conflict within tissues, the manifestation of which is a tumor.
“Tumor cells go on to develop their own complex language to communicate with each other and with the neighboring host cells, including immune cells, in order to drive disease progression. However, our understanding on what and how information is being exchanged to drive this process remains limited,” explains Chabu. “Logically, my focus has moved from understanding the genetic basis of cancer to wanting to learn how cancer cells communicate.”
Resolution of the conflict – that is, tumor suppression – may be possible if scientists can “listen” in on these cellular communications and suppress those that encourage growth.
“If we are going to improve our cancer biology knowledge and, ultimately, cancer care, we need to understand the nature of these cell-cell communications. Knowing how they are initiated, transmitted, and executed in the receiving cells will potentially inform therapeutic intervention strategies,” Chabu says.
Eavesdropping on those cellular communications and deciphering the messages will be the primary goals of his new laboratory here at Mizzou. Chabu joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science in January. His new lab is located on the fourth floor of Tucker Hall.
Chabu earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern Oregon University and his doctorate degree at the University of Oregon. His doctoral research focused on neural stem cell division. He was specifically interested in the mechanisms that ensure organisms maintain a stable pool of neural stem cells, while dividing to give rise to appropriate number of neurons. From there, he says, it was a natural jump to cancer.
“One can see that the timing and the rate at which neural stem cells divide are critical for the overall health of the brain. It is also easy to see the connection to tumor biology. Later, during my graduate career, I became interested in understanding how cell growth or cell division is controlled in tumors,” he says.
Chabu went on to do his postdoctoral work with Dr. Tian Xu at Yale University School of Medicine. The Xu lab had developed a way to genetically induce tumors in patches of cells in fruit flies (Drosophila), a technique scientists refer to as making mosaic tissues. These cells are then labelled with fluorescent proteins, which allows them to be visually distinguished from neighboring normal cells. When Chabu arrived at Yale in 2008, he quickly saw how to use it to tap into the communication occurring between tumor cells and healthy cells.
“The benefit of this system is that the tumor cells are growing in their native environment. What this allows us to do is to genetically dissect those cancer-host cell communications that are hard to capture in a flask or a Petri dish,” he says.
Cells communicate by sending and receiving molecular signals. These signals tell a target cell to change its behavior in some way. In the case of tumor cells, one of these messages is “divide” or “grow.” If you can interrupt these signals and see whether this alters the behavior of a neighboring cancer cell, then you can figure out what message that signaling molecule carries.
As Chabu explains, “Using fancy genetics, we can introduce very specific mutations in the tumor cells or in the normal cells and then we can monitor them to see how these changes impact tumor growth. That’s how we can tease out what messages these cells are sending each other. Also, we can put these cells under the microscope and watch them, so we can capture dynamic information about the communication between the tumor cell and the normal cell.”
The ability to precisely manipulate tumor or healthy cells in living tissue and then use live imaging to watch how they interact, he says, is one of the many advantages of using fruit flies as a model system.
“It is also important to note that many of the cellular signaling or messaging that cause tumors in humans also do so in flies. In a sense flies and human cells generally use a similar language. Together with the power of fly genetics, this gives us an opportunity to significantly expand our tumor biology knowledge,” he adds.
Taking Full Mizzou Advantage
“Dr. Chabu’s focus on the complex signaling interactions occurring between tumor cells and neighboring normal cells – the tumor microenvironment, as he calls it – is a neat new way of thinking about how tumor cells grow,” says Troy Zars, associate professor of biological sciences.
Zars, who studies the mechanisms of learning and memory in fruit flies, adds that he’s particularly excited to have another Drosophila geneticist on board.
“I look forward to talking genetics with him,” he says. “We share a common genetic language. That’s always fun.”
Professor Bing Zhang agrees.
“As a fellow Drosophila geneticist, I am particularly delighted to welcome Dr. Chabu as a new addition to our excellent group of ‘fly people’ in the division and on campus,” says Zhang, who studies the role of neurons and glia in behavior and brain function. “His research on cell signaling mechanisms underlying animal development and dysfunction is very exciting.”
With his arrival on campus, Chabu brings to five the number of Drosophila geneticists on faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences.
Chabu says that the collegiality among faculty was an important factor in his decision to come to MU.
“There are a lot of opportunities to interact with colleagues with different scientific perspectives because of the diverse research interests of the faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences as well as to interact — and hopefully collaborate — with colleagues in the School of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine,” he says. “These prospects foretell a remarkable opportunity. I plan to take full advantage of it.”
And Mizzou Advantage is ready to help him, says Associate Dean of Research Carolyn Henry, who is facilitator for the One Health/One Medicine initiative.
“Dr. Chabu’s background in genetics and molecular biology is excellent and his understanding of the importance of a team approach to science is a perfect match for the One Health/One Medicine efforts at MU,” says Henry, who holds dual faculty appointments in the College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology. “He’ll be joining us in a graduate oncology course this semester and I anticipate he will serve a vital role in research mentorship of our trainees in clinical and translational medicine.”
A Passion for Teaching
Chabu traces his interest in cell biology to a course he took as an undergraduate at Southern Oregon University. He says his professor had a knack for making it easy to understand abstract biological concepts.
“I had the joy of having a really inspirational cell biology teacher, Dr. Kathleen Page was just an amazing teacher,” he recalls. “She explained everything so well, and she put everything in a context that was easy to digest.”
But, he adds, she imparted more than an enthusiasm for cell biology. Moving to a small town in America was, to say the least, a culture shock.
“I didn’t have any sort of a reference. I had the experience of living in France and Africa, but still America was just very different,” he says.
Professor Page, he shares, understood that he was coming from a different geography and culture, but did not use this as reason to sideline him.
“On the contrary, she really tried to integrate me into the class. I felt that someone—irrespective of the challenges—really cared about my learning,” he says.
As he prepares to teach his own cell biology course here at MU, Chabu says he plans to emulate his former teacher’s approach.
“I want students to know that irrespective of their challenges, academic or cultural, they will find in my class a professor who is committed to their learning and is passionate about science and wants to inspire a new generation of scientists” he says.
Written by: Melody Kroll
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