Yale researcher named American Cancer Society Fellow

September 29, 2010

Dr. Robert Tomko, a researcher at Yale University, has dedicated himself to developing new therapies to target and kill cancer cells. It is that dedication that has earned him the latest fellowship in the American Cancer Society and MassBio Cancer Research Challenge.Tomko

“I became interested in cancer research because it’s such a prevalent disease,” said Tomko, whose fellowship was funded by Cambridge-based Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company. “Everyone knows someone who’s been affected by cancer, myself included.”

Tomko is conducting research to help him understand the assembly of the eukaryotic proteasome, which is a very large protein complex located in the nucleus and the cytoplasm. Tomko describes the proteasome as “a cellular garbage disposal” responsible for breaking down damaged or unneeded proteins in the cell. It’s composed of at least 33 different protein subunits, many of which are present in more than one copy. In response to a variety of cellular conditions, the abundance or specific molecular composition of these proteasomes can be altered. In fact, there is increasing evidence that altering proteasome assembly helps cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy.

“At the most basic level, what we’re trying to do is understand how cells are able to take these 33 subunits and put them together with high fidelity into the proteasome,” Tomko said. “Hopefully with that knowledge we can develop new therapies to target and kill cancer cells.”

At Yale, Tomko is using two approaches to conduct his research. First, he and his team are making use of yeast genetics to investigate proteasome assembly inside cells and, second, they are trying to reconstitute assembly of proteasomes inside a test tube from highly purified subunits and components. He said the fellowship is a win-win.

“In my opinion, this fellowship is something that is good for everyone,” Tomko said. “It provides us with the funding to do the research. For cancer patients, survivors, or people who may one day have it, advancing our knowledge has the potential to provide new therapeutics. For biotech companies that donate, it provides an indirect benefit as well because the information we provide can allow them to fine-tune their process to find cancer drugs.”

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