Deepak Nagrath’s Lab Highlighted in Rogel Cancer Center’s “Illuminate” Magazine

Story highlights ways the tumor microenvironment communicates with and fuels cancer cells.

The latest issue of the U-M Rogel Cancer Center’s “Illuminate” magazine highlights the work of Deepak Nagrath, Professor, Biomedical Engineering. The publication examines how his lab studies the way the tumor microenvironment communicates with and fuels cancer cells. 

“We’ve seen that the microenvironment can supply nutrients like amino acids to cancer cells,” Dr. Nagrath said. “We’ve also shown that the microenvironment supplies vesicles, which are loaded with that the cancer cells engulf to use for their own growth.”

Like the other members of the working group, Dr. Nagrath is hopeful that understanding metabolism in the lab will eventually lead to new treatment options, given that, as he describes, most conventional therapies have failed to meet the mark. “In some cancers, like pancreatic and ovarian, we’ve been using the same drugs for 40-50 years. There aren’t many new therapies,” he said. “And these have failed because cancer cells adapt and come up with ways to compensate.”

To accomplish advances, Nagrath says that a complete and dynamic understanding of the metabolic environment is necessary to truly starve the cancer and incapacitate its growth.

“That’s why the metabolic goal is systemic. It systematically starves cancer cells, so there’s no way for them to get around it,” he continued.

For metabolic treatments to have a clinical impact, Nagrath’s lab focuses on a two-pronged approach. Using patient genomic data in integrated machine learning, along with a state-of-the-art metabolic flux analysis framework, his lab has identified backup metabolic genes, or collateral genes, on which cancer cells rely for their growth. Dr. Nagrath’s lab is also developing a novel platform for predicting in vivo metabolic fluxes in patients, which will be a cornerstone for targeting therapy.