November 30, 2017 / All Stories

Science Rocks! How to spy on and decode cancer cell messages

Stealthy cancer cells guard their messages to the immune system closely, making them difficult to crack. Unless you’re a spy with the right decoder.

Science Rocks features AbbVie scientists who share interesting research in their field and why it matters. In this month's feature, Melanie Patterson, Ph.D., senior scientist, protein mass spectrometry, AbbVie, discusses how to spy on cancer cell messages and decode them.

One of the most exciting opportunities in science today is the potential for our immune system to fight cancer. For decades, scientists and doctors thought the main job of the immune system was to fight off infections from invading fungi, bacteria and viruses. However, over the last several years, we have started to see that the immune system can do even more remarkable things. Today, the field of immuno-oncology is of intense interest, and scientists are working feverishly to discover new ways to use aspects of our immune systems to help us live cancer-free. As a senior scientist at AbbVie, I am excited to apply cutting edge technology to advance these opportunities.

In order for your immune system to know whether part of your body is healthy or diseased, it must read a message presented on the surface of the cells in that tissue. This message tells the immune system one of two things: either “Ignore me. I’m good,” or “Take action! Something is wrong.” By using technology called mass spectrometry, we can decode these messages and develop new strategies to deliver medicine only to the part of the body where it is needed. Importantly, healthy tissue can be avoided giving us the potential to develop and test medicines that are more effective and have fewer side effects.

My job is to solve the puzzle of what makes a cancer cell look abnormal inside the body. By using an oven-sized instrument called a mass spectrometer, we can read the exact messages presented by cancer cells. One of the best things about using a mass spectrometer is that it gives you a window into what is happening at the smallest level of detail inside the body. Each day, my team and I set out to hunt for cancer-specific messages, and this helps our oncology teammates develop new medicine for patients. As a scientist, you get a front row seat to learn from nature, pick the best features, and design the medicines that could help people all over the world.

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Jaquelin Finley
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