UCSF neurosurgeon and stem cell researcher Daniel Lim, MD, PhD, has been awarded $600,000 to study how neural stem cells can become cancerous and maintain their lethal characteristics as they divide and spread.
Lim, an assistant professor and director of restorative neurosurgery in the Department of Neurological Surgery and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, is one of four recipients of this year’s Sontag Foundation Distinguished Scientist Award, which supports early career scientists conducting “inspiring, potential-laden brain cancer research,” according to the foundation’s website.
Lim’s research will focus on gliomas, an aggressive form of brain cancer that can grow very rapidly and migrate extensively, killing healthy nerve cells as the tumor expands in size.
Cancer was once believed to be caused solely by mutations to DNA, the cell’s genetic material. However, it is increasingly apparent that epigenetic changes — non-DNA-based, inherited forms of gene expression — also play a critical role in tumor development and progression, Lim said.
Lim plans to investigate how glioma cells might use certain epigenetic mechanisms to “remember” their malignant properties as the cancer progresses.
Gene expression can be activated, or silenced, by proteins known as “chromatin modifying factors.” In earlier work at UCSF, Lim discovered that one such chromatin modifying factor, Mll1, not only helps normal neural stem cells produce neurons, but also may enable cancer stem cells in gliomas to proliferate and migrate great distances through normal brain tissue.
Lim said he hopes that by understanding how glioma tumors use Mll1 and related chromatin modifying factors to sustain their abnormal gene expression pattern, researchers may eventually be able to interfere with specific chromatin-based processes and cause the cells to “forget” they are cancer.
Lim, who joined the UCSF faculty in 2008, said his dual roles as a neural stem cell investigator and a practicing neurosurgeon have allowed him the valuable opportunity to move back and forth between the worlds of research and of patient care.
“I envision a constant interplay between the ongoing basic neural stem cell research in my lab and a growing effort focused on gliomas and their cancer stem cells,” Lim said. “With the support of the Sontag Foundation, we will be able to leverage our current research efforts and resources toward the cure of this terrible disease.”
The Sontag Distinguished Scientist Award will move Lim closer to his goal, with $150,000 in funding each year for the next four years.
Based in Florida, the Sontag Foundation was established in 2000 to fund research focusing on the causes, cure or treatment of brain cancer.
UCSF scientists awarded NIH research awards encouraging innovation
UCSF News Release, September 24, 2009
UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery
Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research
The Sontag Foundation
A Key to New Neuron Birth in the Young Brain
UCSF Science Café, Feb. 13, 2009