[Researcher of the Month] The Result of a Small Curiosity
A weapon to fight cancer
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For centuries, cancer has been mankind’s mulish enemy that has taken away countless lives. Scientists and researchers are unceasingly putting effort into developing a cure for cancer, including Choi Je-min (Department of Life Science) who recently paved another road to effectively treating cancer in his paper “Regulation of chitinase-3-like-1 in T cell elicits Th1 and cytotoxic responses to inhibit lung metastasis.” First, starting his research from a small curiosity for a certain component in our cell called chitinase, Choi unveiled the secret related to the immune system for cancer and accomplished the first step of creating a drug for the disease.
Chitin may sound familiar due to its presence in the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crabs, lobsters, and shrimps and some insects and molluscs. A derivative of the word is chitinase, which is a component that reshapes or dissolves and digests chitin for animals. Such a component also exists in the human body, which has no specific function of its own. Knowing this fact, Choi was eager to find out why it still exists in our body and what it does. Without a function, the component lost its name and has come to be called ‘chitinase-3-like-1.’ “If it is completely useless, why do we have it? When such a question arises, we biologists experiment in one of two ways: remove it or increase its amount. In this case, I decided to remove it to see what happens in the testing mouse. Since chitinase is used to protect the body in plants, I guessed that it would have something to do with our immune system.”
After removing the component from the mouse, Choi’s discovery was surprising. The type of cell called T cell which plays a key role in cell-mediated immunity, specifically Th1 and CTL, were greatly activated. In other words, chitinase-3-like-1 were acting as the deactivator of the T cells, which play a central role in battling cancer. Choi had two model mice in his experiment, one with the component and the other without it. He inserted cancer cells in both mice and compared the outcome. Expectedly, the mouse without the component showed much lower development of cancer while the other showed the opposite. This means by removing chitinase-3-like-1, which allows the T cells to be activated, immunity for cancer considerably increases. “The experiment let me figure out that if chitinase-3-like-1 are removed from our body, it could work as an excellent anticancer treatment.” Quenchingly, his question was answered by the result of his experiment.
Based on his finding, Choi took another step to develop an anticancer drug. Since it is impossible to remove DNA from the human body, there had to be another way to remove the component from our body. Therefore, he went ahead and worked to create a drug that restrains the chitinase-3-like-1-creating DNA from producing more of the component. With a technique called RNA-interference which removes the undesired or mutated RNA in the body, Choi targeted the chitinase-3-like-1 RNA after converting it to RNA from DNA and attempted to remove the undesired component to increase cancer immunity. Using a technique called peptide-based drug delivery, Choi attached the RNA version of the component with peptide bonds in the drug and aimed to spread the medicament throughout the body. This resulted in deactivation of the chitinase-3-like-1-creating DNA and thus an escalation of cancer immunity.
“Although it could take about a decade before this drug becomes commercialized and widely used, it could be a breakthrough once it does. The underlying prinicple of my research is always to produce a useful outcome that could actually be put into use and not just end in the lab. I could say that our establishment philosophy ‘Love in deed’ fits well with my goal,” smiled Choi. He emphasized that it is always important to sometimes question the basic things, even the things that are already proven to be a fact. Through his research and experiments, Choi wants to discover more unknown facts. Choi will continue his research to experiment with cells and create more drugs to be used practically.
Jeon Chae-yun firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Choi Min-ju
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