Someday in the future scientists might save millions of lives by solving the riddle of metastasis.
It is the mysterious process where cancer cells begin migrating from the tumor of origin and spread the disease.
If that riddle is solved it won’t be because of one scientist. All scientists, as Moriah Beck says, build on the knowledge of those who precede them.
But any scientist who solves it will likely remember what Beck did, in the years leading up to 2012, while working in a laboratory at Wichita State University.
Cancer kills more than half a million people in the U.S. annually, according to estimates by the American Cancer Society; roughly 1,500 a day, about 5,400 Kansans per year.
Solving metastasis would earn the gratitude of millions of survivors and their loved ones.
Beck, a protein biochemist from Wichita State University, has not solved that riddle yet, but colleagues say she has taken a long step toward doing so.
Studying the unknown
Beck, now 35, is a rising star in biochemistry, according to one of the fellow scientists she works with.
She was born in Colorado and moved with her family to Kentucky, where she graduated from high school and started college.
She liked forensic science enough to get a degree in it. Then she got bored. Much of forensic science concerns things already known.
She discovered biochemistry, which intrigued her more.
“There are all these things we don’t know in biochemistry,” she said. “I wanted to study what was not known.”
While in her early 20s, Beck began collaborating in a lab with Carol Otey, a scientist at the University of North Carolina. In 2000, Otey discovered an interesting human protein called palladin. Twelve years later, Beck made a discovery that Otey says may reveal how palladin plays a crucial role in cancer metastasis, particularly with some pancreatic and breast cancers, and how it might be stopped.
E. coli helps
To a person eating a burger in a diner, “E. coli” could be a dreadful term. But in science there is no bad or good; there is only knowledge. A protein biochemist like Beck knows that E. coli bacteria can be converted to become microscopic factories of human proteins.
To study palladin, Beck first needs a supply of human protein. You can’t just carve a pound of flesh. So Beck does something now common in biochemistry: She stuffs tiny bits of human DNA into the E. coli bacteria, which then makes human protein — all possible, Beck said, because in essence, we are much like E. coli. “We use the same four nucleotides, and we have the same 20 amino acids in our protein.”
Among the proteins that E. coli produces for Beck is palladin.
A ‘rising star’
Cancer happens because one cell gene mutates. Or a virus reprograms a cell. It starts with one cell mutating — and “going rogue,” Beck said. That cell then divides and multiplies … and forms a tumor.
That’s bad. It gets much worse when the cancer migrates, or metastasizes.
Otey, reached at the University of North Carolina, said that what Beck did after 2000 was take a big risk, which led to a big discovery.
There are many proteins now being discovered, Otey said. Any scientist who bets on only one protein — who invests a lot of time and energy into studying just one protein — runs the risk that that protein will turn out to be a rather dull actor.
In 2007 Beck decided to risk spending years on palladin, because she had a hunch it was interesting.
And she was right. Which was no surprise to Otey. “She’s a rising star,” Otey said.
She believes Beck’s risk is going to pay off. Recent scientific papers and research studies done elsewhere, Otey said, are causing scientists to suspect there may be a link between palladin and the spread of some pancreatic and breast cancers. And now it looks like Beck is well on the way to proving that link, Otey said.
What Beck did, starting in about 2007, was set out to test a hypothesis: that palladin is the protein agent that prompts another protein called actin to do several things. Actin, when prompted, will sprout filaments, build structures inside cells and get those cells moving, extending filaments, and traveling on those expanded filaments, the way a railroad track-building crew extends civilization into a wilderness.
All of that is healthy when done inside healthy cells. But it is deadly when the cells that activate and spread have gone rogue and become cancerous.
In movies about scientific discoveries, there is usually a dramatic moment. Archimedes plops himself into a bathtub, sees the water level rise and calls out “eureka” because he’s solved the riddle of water displacement.
But real science doesn’t often play out like that. For one discovery, there are often dozens or hundreds or thousands of steps done by separate scientists, who build on each other’s work.
For Beck, there was a trip to the University of Virginia early in the year. And there, with other scientists, Beck and one of her grad students, Rita Gurung from Nepal, used a powerful microscope.
They put palladin with actin.
They watched tiny filaments of actin protein begin interacting.
And yes, that was … exciting – about as exciting as it can get in a lab testing protein interactions at the microscopic level. No one really yelled with joy.
“We are scientists, so we know we have to prove something many times,” Beck said. But they knew that they were likely looking at an important protein process that no one had ever seen or documented before.
What they saw appeared to validate Beck’s hypothesis that palladin acts upon actin, the way an accelerator acts on a car engine. In the cell, palladin gives the prompt, and the actin then produces filaments, new structures and migration.
It looked interesting.
But this is science, as Beck said.
Which meant they had to repeat the tests.
So they went home to Wichita, and bought a new instrument, and tried to replicate everything they’d done in Virginia.
And it didn’t work.
When they realized their new instrument was the problem, Beck obtained another one. A lot of her work in a lab, as with many other scientists these days during budget cuts, involves trying to raise money and get equipment that works. And Beck did that.
And then they repeated the tests, and they saw the little bits of protein do just what they had seen in Virginia. Interacting. Combining. Moving.
All this might lead to something big down the road. Beck has not had her work peer-reviewed and published yet; but Otey said she’s sure it’s a big discovery, almost assuredly linking palladin to metastasis. What that means, Otey said, is that scientists might now find a drug or some other way to stop palladin from prompting cancer cells to spread and move.
That could lead directly to more big things, Otey said.
A partial but big victory over cancer, for example.
The saving of many lives.
It’s not a sure thing yet, but it looks hopeful.
All it will take to check it out, Beck said, is a few more hundred steps like this one.