Tumor Wars

Haley Capek Fights The Mafia-Like Cancer Tumors by Helping the Whistleblower What’s the best way to fight a tumor? How do you defeat a foe as savage as cancer?

Haley Capek (’07) is building her career around these questions. The chemistry major and biology minor from Milligan is studying in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Cancer Research Graduate Program; she recognizes fully the brutality of her opponent.

If organized crime can infect a city like cancer, then likewise, tumors are the body’s mafia. Cancer is corruption at the cellular level. The means by which a cancerous tumor takes hold, protects itself and grows into something deadly is as intricate and malignant as anything you’d find in the mob.

Historically, oncologists have resorted to brutal tactics to fight a brutal enemy. Chemotherapy is perhaps the largest example. Doctors administer poison in the hope that it will kill the tumor faster than the patient. Hysterectomies, mastectomies and ablations of all kinds sacrifice flesh to beat cancer.

It’s nothing short of a street fight with malignancy. And cancer patients and doctors will do just about anything to win it.

But Capek is working to find ways to win this fight without relying so heavily on the more heinous arrows in oncology’s quiver. “Clinically, we hope to one day help patients with cancer by… reducing the heavy burden of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery,” Capek said.

When we think about the weapons we use to fight cancer, we generally think of the things Capek named: chemotherapy, radiation and the scalpel. But what about our immune system? What if we could fight cancer like we fight a cold?

It’s nothing short of a street fight with malignancy. And cancer patients and doctors will do just about anything to win it.

“In general terms, cancer cells are recognized by our immune system,” Capek said. “However, tumors undergo changes that allow them to evade our immune system.” Like the mob putting corrupt politicians or police officers on its payroll, tumors find means to convince the immune system to look the other way.

Capek described the immune system’s process of recognizing viruses or tumors. A molecule known as MHC class I “reports” to the immune system’s cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL). “If MHC class I presents a healthy self, the CTL does nothing. However, if MHC class I presents something other than self (like a viral or tumor protein), then the CTL will kill the target cell.”

You could call MHC class I by a variety of names: mob informant, whistle-blower, fink, narc. By any name, the tumor would just as soon MHC class I keep its mouth shut.

The mafia maxim, “Dead men don’t speak,” holds true in tumors. So, tumors turn to a protein that specializes in making problems go away: amyloid precursor-like protein two (APLP2).

This hired goon of a protein “has many functions,” Capek said, “but we have found that it pulls in MHC class I from the cell surface and directs it to lysosomes where MHC class I is destroyed.” So APLP2 works for the mob part time, and makes sure that MHC class I—the molecule responsible for telling the immune system where to strike—sleeps with the fishes.

Haley Capek  Fights The Mafia-Like Cancer Tumors by Helping the Whistleblower With our immune system essentially blinded to its presence, the tumor is free to go about its deadly business of growing. “APLP2 is highly expressed in many cancers, suggesting a pathway utilized by many types of cancers,” she said. “We hope to further understand this interaction, then disrupt it in order to allow a patient’s own immune system to recognize and fight the tumor.”

Protect the whistle-blower, and suddenly the immune system joins in the street fight. Every cancer cell that an immune system kills is one cell doctors don’t have to attack through heinous chemotherapy or carve out in invasive and risky surgery.

Capek sees Nebraska Wesleyan as a player in this fight. “NWU built my platform of knowledge needed to do well in graduate school. I was introduced to UNMC by a scholarship offered through NWU known today as NE-INBRE—Nebraska’s Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence).”

The scholarship represented an offer Capek couldn’t refuse. “This allowed me to advance my laboratory skills and really go to the next level.”

If Capek’s work at the Cancer Research Graduate Program pans out, she may help take the fight against cancer to the next level, too.