Dr. Edward Hinchcliffe receives funds from U.S. Dept. of Defense for new project

Dr Edward Hinchcliffe

One of The Hormel Institute’s research leaders is targeting childhood brain cancer under a new project recently approved for federal funding.

Dr. Edward Hinchcliffe, leader of the “Cellular Dynamics” research section at The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, has been awarded a two-year grant totaling nearly $422,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense. Under the grant, Hinchcliffe’s team seeks to better understand one potential cause of pediatric brain cancer: mistakes made during cell division or “mitosis” (one cell becoming two) that cause rearrangements of chromosomes called “chromosome instability.”

Hinchcliffe, a basic cell biologist who is an expert microscopist (research using microscopes) and leader in the field of live-cell imaging, will run experiments to gain knowledge of how mistakes during cell division can contribute to brain cancer progression in children and, most importantly, seek to identify cellular mechanisms linked to gene mutations seen in patients. Several recent studies have identified gene mutations found in pediatric brain cancers but much more needs to be understood as to why those mutations happen and why they lead to tumor formation in children, he said.

“What makes this work innovative is that it involves cell components that we know to be damaged in pediatric brain cancer patients,” Hinchcliffe said. “These have the best chance of providing real insights into brain cancer development and hopefully leading to effective new treatments within 10 years.”

Hinchcliffe planned to speak on his new project Friday to the Genetics, Cell Biology and Development Department at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Although childhood cancer is rare, brain and spinal-cord tumors are the third most-common type of pediatric cancer after leukemia and lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute.

A human body hosts trillions of cells, and those cells can make mistakes during mitosis – the process in which a parent cell divides into two daughter cells. This can lead to an imbalance of chromosome numbers in the daughter cells. Chromosomes are thread-like structures in cells consisting of DNA and protein that carry genes during cell division.

When a mistake occurs during cell division leading to the loss of a chromosome, the cell loses the functions of all genes on that chromosome, possibly including some tumor-suppressor genes that prevent cancer. If a cell gains a chromosome during mitosis, it gets extra copies of that chromosome’s genes, which might include tumor-promoting oncogenes.

Environmental factors – many associated with active military service – can cause irreversible changes or mutations to cells, Hinchcliffe said, as well as change how a cell responds to a potential problem, such as chromosome instability.

“If we can understand the nature of mitotic defects, then we potentially can design treatment strategies to destroy these cells,” Hinchcliffe said, adding that several chemotherapies target mitotic mistakes but need to be more effective. “We also can use this knowledge to possibly prevent the onset of brain cancers in the first place and design highly sensitive detection methodologies to identify juvenile brain cancer before it progresses.”