National Cancer Institute Awards Grant to USC School of Pharmacy Supporting Research on Liver Cancer

Bangyan Stiles, an associate professor at the School of Pharmacy, has been awarded a 5-year grant totaling over $1 million in direct costs from the National Cancer Institute to look at a novel approach to understand the tumor formation process and to thwart liver cancer development.

Stiles’s research has shown that the development of liver tumors is a multistage process.  Her work focuses on the role played by PTEN, a gene present in almost every cell of the body, and AKT2, a signaling molecule which is required for the development of fatty liver disease, a precursor to liver cancer.  Liver cancer is often preceded by fatty liver disease.

“Fatty liver causes injury to the liver,” says Stiles.  “This then allows cancer to develop if the patient has the precursor cancer cells.”

About three percent of fatty liver patients go on to develop liver cancer and this number is rising along with the prevalence of fatty liver which is currently estimated to affect some 80% of all American adults.  Stiles looks at the molecule “conversations” which prompt the progression to liver cancer in an effort to find ways to prevent and treat the disease.

Stiles has developed a unique mouse model which lacks PTEN.  Without PTEN, fatty liver disease develops and, where precursor cells exist, liver cancer follows.  Stiles is looking to answer the question of what exactly makes this happen on the molecular level and how can the process be disrupted.  Along with the lack of PTEN, the AKT2 molecule must be present in the cells for fatty liver to develop.  Without this molecule, fatty liver doesn’t occur which in turn prevents liver cancer development.

“We are looking at how AKT2 controls fatty liver and the signaling that promotes the tumor cells to grow and become cancer,” says Stiles.  “We study events at the molecular level which cause tumor cells to become cancer.  Our goal is to understand this signaling, so we can stop the process from proceeding to cancer.”

This work also points to the importance of diet and exercise says Stiles who notes that obesity is a risk factor for developing fatty liver.  Additionally, she says that travel also poses a big risk, as hepatitis is also a major risk for developing fatty liver.

“Our work is designed to ultimately prevent fatty liver progress to cancer and to treat early stage liver cancer,” says Stiles.  “But I hope more Americans recognize the risk of fatty liver disease and follow a diet and exercise regimen that will help keep them from getting it.”