Ourania Andrisani’s quest for knowledge on liver cancer

Prof. Andrisani and her team

12/2/2016 |

Hepatitis B infection isn’t just an illness; Hepatitis B is also a viral carcinogen. For the 5 to 10 percent of people whose hepatitis B infection is not cured, liver cancer is likely to result 20 to 30 years down the road.

Here in the United States, we are largely protected through vaccination. But for people in Europe, Asia, India and Africa — especially in remote, underdeveloped areas where vaccines may be hard to come by — hepatitis B is a scourge that, if not successfully treated, can even be passed on to infants during childbirth.

Ourania Andrisani, who also used to study quail and chicken embryos to understand development of nerve cells, has for the past two decades been leveraging her knowledge of cell division to study how liver cancer results from the virus.

“Doctors can’t do anything about these children, and anyone whose virus is never cured becomes a chronic carrier,” says Andrisani, professor of basic medical sciences. “There is a very significant need in the world for new ways to treat both the infection by the virus and also the resulting liver cancer.”

Because cell behaviors are regulated by different pathways, Andrisani is comparing healthy liver cells to ones infected by the virus, in order to identify behaviors that only occur when the virus is present. “If the virus activates a specific pathway, first, this pathway must be important for the virus to grow, and second, it must contribute to the development of liver cancer,” she says.

In a study published 12 years ago, Andrisani and her team discovered that the X protein that is made from the genetic material of the virus instructs infected liver cells to grow and divide. Slowly, over decades, the liver’s genetic landscape becomes more and more damaged, and infected cells mutate into cancerous ones.

While Andrisani continues studying pathways, she and her team of graduate students and post-docs are also trying to identify molecules that could be targeted to block the growth of cancerous liver cells. “Although we are very far from a cure or development of new therapies for liver cancer, the first step is to know the players of the pathways and how they turn a normal cell into a cancerous one. Then, we will work with drug scientists and chemists who can think of ways to develop specific molecules that can target these pathways,” she says.

The majority of chemotherapy drugs today can’t differentiate between cancerous and healthy cells, which is why side effects like nausea, hair loss and even organ damage can result. “If we can understand the specific mechanisms of cancer cells, we can target just those, in select patients that have mutations in those pathways. This is the whole idea of personalized medicine.”

Above: Members of the BMS research team studying hepatitis B virus and liver cancer: (left-right) Ellen Weigel, 2nd year DVM student; Dante’ Johnson, student in the PREP program (Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program in the Biomedical Sciences); Ahmed Diab, PhD student; Ourania Andrisani, professor of basic medical sciences; and Hao Zhang, former post-doctoral associate.