Neutrons Unlock New Angles on Cancer

CINS Scatting Spotlight: Brett Rickeard, University of Windsor

Source: Mitchell DiPasquale 
Image: Molecular dynamics simulation of the anti-cancer agent pancratistatin interacting with a cell membrane.

Most modern cancer research is focussed on developing therapies to target specific proteins that are abundant in cancer cells. Brett Rickeard, a second-year Master’s student at the University of Windsor, is exploring a unique approach to take aim at cancer.

Pancratistatin (PST) is a natural anti-cancer agent extracted from the bulbs of the spider lily plant. Work on cancer cells and animal models has shown that PST can target and eliminate a wide range of cancers with 3-5 times the potency of currently used therapies – all without toxically affecting healthy cells!

Currently, the largest impediment is that studies are unclear how PST specifically attacks cancer cells. Research on various cancer types, including pancreatic, prostate, lung, carcinoma, leukemia, neuroblastoma, and breast, has suggested that PST may act to shut down the cancer cell’s overworking powerhouses; mitochondria.

“Findings from this neutron research will help advance pancratistatin into a pharmaceutical setting as a viable treatment for cancer patients.”– Brett Rickeard, UWindsor.

Under the supervision of Dr. Drew Marquardt, Rickeard’s research aims to fill in this gap by defining how PST changes the membranes that make up cancerous mitochondria. These small changes in membrane behaviour can greatly impact the ability of mitochondrial proteins to carry out their jobs and fuel the cancer cell’s metabolic demand. When mitochondria fail to produce enough energy, the cancer cell dies.

Investigating such small structures without perturbation is not a simple task. To avoid the bias of adding probes, Rickeard has turned to neutrons as a non-destructive and highly precise technique to interrogate his membrane systems. Using small angle neutron scattering (SANS) Brett is able to measure how PST changes the structure of the mitochondrial membrane at the sub-molecular scale.

University of Windsor Master student Brett Rickeard

To further understand how mitochondrial membranes respond to PST, Rickeard is looking at changes in the mechanical properties of the membrane with neutron spin-echo (NSE). NSE is an irreplaceable technique that can measure small changes in membrane flexibility – a property that can have dramatic effects on mitochondrial functionality.

Taken together, Rickeard hopes to piece together the mechanism of action of pancratistatin to understand what makes this promising new drug so effective.

Neutrons provide an unparalleled scientific tool to study the structural and mechanical intricacies of cell membranes. Rickeard’s studies may open the door to a new perspective of targeting cancer cells at the membrane level, with neutron research at the forefront.

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