Institute announces new section to study cancer cells and liver

Published 10:51 am Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Hormel Institute is doing a little more research these days.

Institute officials announced a new cancer research section Tuesday headed by Dr. Ningling Kang to focus on how cancer cells spread from one area of the body to the liver.



Dr. Ningling Kang recently joined The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota-Mayo Clinic, where she will lead the “Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis” research section. Her department is the 13th cancer research section at The Institute, which has grown significantly from five sections in 2006 when it began its last expansion project.

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Kang has relocated to The Hormel Institute from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where she was a faculty member since 2007 at its Center for Cell Signaling in Gastroenterology and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. She currently is funded by a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute through 2016, and four scientists will work in her section.

“I was attracted by the interacting scientific environment and the world-class facilities. The research facilities here are state-of-the-art,” Kang said in a press release. “This environment facilitates successful and effective interactions and collaboration between principal investigators.”

Kang’s research strives to answer the questions: Why is the liver a preferential invasion site for cancers, such as gastrointestinal cancers and melanoma, breast and lung cancers; and what are the key cellular factors within the liver that cause cancer cells to form in the liver?

Despite significant advances in treating liver metastatic diseases, liver metastases — cancerous tumors that have spread to the liver from somewhere else in the body — remain the principle cause for people dying from cancer. Many cancers show a preference for spreading to the liver, she said. Metastic cancer in the liver is far more common than primary liver cancer.

Kang’s research is focused on bidirectional interactions between tumor cells and the liver microenvironment, with a long-term goal to uncover cellular and molecular mechanisms as well as identify therapeutic targets within the liver for reducing tumor implantation and metastatic growth in the liver.

If communication could be disrupted between cancer cells and the liver, researchers would have mechanisms to prevent tumor growth in the liver, Kang said. This is because cancer cells act like seeds with the liver serving as their soil, providing physical support and essential nutrients for the “seeding” of cancer cells, she said.

Kang’s research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a top scientific journal. That research showed hepatic stellate cells — components of the liver microenvironment that play vital roles in liver functions — present a new therapy target for liver metastases.

Her goal is to investigate whether combinatory therapies that target both cancer cells and the tumor microenvironment would be more effective at reducing liver metastases and increasing the chance of survival for patients.