NCI, Japan Society Present Symposium on Cancer Research
By Clare Collins
The United States-Japan Cooperative Cancer Research Program, jointly sponsored by NCI and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, recently presented a symposium entitled "Common Frontiers in Cancer Research" at the Natcher Conference Center. The purpose was to bring researchers and scientists together from the United States and Japan to share their expertise and insights about cancer research.
Dr. Joe Harford of NCI welcomed the audience and acknowledged the contributions that the Japanese have made not only to science but also to the Tidal Basin, referring to the cherry trees presented by the Japanese that bring thousands of visitors to D.C. every year. He said NCI supported 124 Japanese visiting scientists during fiscal year 1999 more than from any other country. Dr. Shiro Miwa, director of JSPS, spoke about the organization's 5-year plan initiated with NCI to train young cancer researchers through an exchange of personnel. This exchange allows Japanese and American scientists the opportunity to share information and cutting-edge laboratory techniques, the tools of collaborative cancer research.
On the symposium's first day, Dr. Robert Weinberg of MIT, the 1997 recipient of the highest science honor in the U.S., the National Science Medal, spoke on "Creation of Human Cancer Cells with Defined Genetic Elements." The focus of his research has been on the distinct defects in regulatory circuits that govern normal cell proliferation and are disrupted when a cell becomes cancerous. Weinberg explained that his current research took advantage of the recent isolation of the hTERT gene, which encodes the human telomerase. Telomerase is an enzyme that becomes active in cancer cells, enabling unlimited replication. According to Weinberg, greater understanding of the role of telomerase in cancer cell growth may provide insights for new prevention and treatment strategies. His construction of a cancer cell with defined genetic elements represents a turning point for cancer genetics, introducing a new tool to the research. It may now be possible to test the proposition that the development of all types of human tumor cells are governed by a finite number of critical mutations.
Other distinguished speakers discussed various genetic and molecular approaches to cancer research as promising methods for cancer treatment. They provided an overview of cancer genetics, biomarkers/early detection, apoptosis and angiogenesis. Discussions on the first day of the symposium included the identification of the functions of specific genes that are amplified in the late stages of cancer and the study of the function of tumor suppressor genes. During the second day, discussion shifted from genetics to cell biology. Speakers discussed investigation of the genes responsible for apoptosis control in human cancers and the proteins that regulate cell death during apoptosis, as well as molecular approaches that make cancer cells more susceptible to cancer drugs. Dr. John Reed of the Burnham Institute explained that using small molecular approaches to restore the balance of cell life and cell death via the apoptotic pathway may make cancer cells more susceptible to cancer drugs and thus easier to eradicate.
The organization responsible for bringing these speakers to the NIH, the U.S.-Japan Cooperative Cancer Research Program, was launched in 1974 with an agreement between NCI and JSPS. The cooperative program supports research in three areas: basic, clinical and epidemiology/behavioral science. Since its inception, the cooperative program has held 250 scientific meetings and supported 400 exchanges. The program now typically sponsors one seminar per year as well as one major symposium, whose location rotates between the two countries each year. The cooperative program has been instrumental in establishing a close relationship between researchers that has significantly contributed to the progress made in recent years in cancer research and treatment. For more information on JSPS, visit http://www.jspsusa.org.
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