Can we fight cancer by targeting its metabolism, essentially starving tumors of the nutrients they need to survive? It’s one of the intriguing big-picture questions in the research field of Jing Fan, a new investigator in the Morgridge Institute for Research metabolism theme.
Fan will join the Morgridge metabolism theme, directed by Dave Pagliarini, in August for a one-year fellowship appointment, before becoming a Morgridge investigator and assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Nutritional Sciences.
Fan’s research strives to better understand how metabolism is dynamically regulated, both within the cell, across different tissue types, and by nutritional and environmental factors. For example, metabolic processes differ across diverse tissues and cell types, yet they all need to work together to function.
In particular, Fan studies cancer cells, which have a different metabolic signature than normal cells. Cancer cells exist in a distinct micro-environment, which includes different nutrient and pH levels, and the influence of other cell types. There is evidence that cancerous and normal cells interact with one another.
“I’m very interested in looking at how these local environments change the cell metabolism, and how cancer cells survive the metabolic stress,” she says. “It relates to how cancer cells can keep growing and become chemo-resistant.”
Scientists in this area have been looking at whether nutritional changes could impact the spread of cancer. “There is a lot of research indicating that cancer cells have a particular craving for specific types of amino acids and lipids,” she says. “We can look at changes in the availability of these nutrients at the extracellular level and what impact they have on cancer cells.”
Fan won’t need long to acclimate to her new position. She already has strong connections in the Discovery Building as a postdoctoral researcher in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery epigenetics theme, led by Biomolecular Chemistry Professor John Denu.
Fan completed her PhD in 2014 at Princeton University, and joined the WID epigenetics theme later that year. She says her fascination with metabolism started early in her career at Princeton.
“It’s such a complex system, but it’s also a tightly regulated and interdependent system,” she says. “Metabolism employs thousands of different reactions that are defined by the genome. But it’s also very dynamic and changes based on what we are eating and other environmental factors. I’m interested in the idea of how all of this works together.”