Personal Stories

Dr. Stephen Konieczny, researcher

Muscle cells, nerve cells, skin cells and all other cell types in our bodies are identical in their embryonic state. Each cell grows and develops by turning on and off a series of genetic “switches.” How and when these switches activate determine what kind of cell it becomes. For the most part these switches perform normally and each cell in our body matures into its biologically designed function.

Cancer cells form as the result of errant switches. Something either doesn’t activate, activates at the wrong time or too often, performs in an abnormal manner. This causes cells to lose the ability to control their own growth and develop into cancer. These switch malfunctions often occur years before a person begins to feel any symptoms of their disease. Our lab is focused on defining the earliest molecular switches that become altered during the initiation events leading to pancreatic cancer. We are working to identify the ways these cells malfunction long before cancer cells metastasize.

At the Transgenic Mouse Core Facility (TMCF), we can study mutational events from their beginnings. Using a variety of genetic tools we can mimic a particular type of cancer to better understand how it starts. This approach is enabling us to study the molecular and genetic beginnings of cancer, leading to new methods for identifying and treating pre-cancerous cells before they mature and multiply.

The TMCF also serves as a testing lab for cancer treatments developed by other researchers in the Center. We are able to create genetically identical test subjects, all with the same cancer mutations. This is an extraordinary resource for other labs as they move their studies from test tubes to live subjects. Successful tests in mice are often the launching pad for human clinical trials and the first step toward a cure.