Truly groundbreaking cancer research is reserved for those who find new ways to look at the disease. Ghassan Mouneimne is doing just that.
Mouneimne, an assistant professor of cellular and molecular medicine and a University of Arizona Cancer Center researcher, is among the nation's finest young cell biologists, but what makes his work unique is his talent in microscopy and graphic design.
"My brother is an architect, so I always figured he was the one born with the artistic, visual talent," Mouneimne said. "But as I've started doing more microscopy and incorporating more graphic design into my presentations, it's actually allowed me to see things differently."
Mouneimne was born and raised in Beirut. He came to New York in 2001 to study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. That is where he first started dabbling with graphic design programs. He was constantly searching for ways to help illustrate his findings for his cell biology peers.
Mouneimne completed his post-graduate work at Harvard Medical School, where his interests in graphics and cell biology merged to help make him one of the most innovative, exciting researchers in his field. He joined the faculty at the UA Cancer Center in October.
At first, he primarily used Adobe Photoshop simply to highlight the areas of a cell he wished to discuss in his presentations. As his proficiency with the software grew, his latent artistic abilities came to the surface, as many of his images started to look more like works of art than standard PowerPoint slides.
"A lot of our work in this field is visual in nature," Mouneimne said. "So it only makes sense to me to make those visuals appear as dramatic and captivating as possible. It helps me explain what would otherwise be very complex ideas in a much simpler way."
Image integrity, of course, is Mouneimne's top priority. Images, no matter how eye-catching, are useless if they don't convey the correct information or if they present a cell out of its proper context.
"There is a very fine line between image presentation and image manipulation," Mouneimne said. "The ultimate purpose of these images is to always present the data in a clear and faithful manner."
In his lab, Mouneimne focuses primarily on why some breast cancer cells remain within the original tumor site, while other cells become invasive and metastatic — the most dangerous types of cancer cells.
"The spreading of tumors to secondary organs is one of the primary causes of death in cancer patients, and we don’t have effective treatment strategies for that stage," Mouneimne said. "Therefore, the therapeutic regimens targeting cancer cell invasion would be extremely valuable for cancer management and treatment."
Developing those therapies, of course, is incredibly challenging. Cancer cells are plastic, adaptive and tough to pin down. The vast majority of treatment strategies focus on shrinking the primary tumor and eliminating those cancer cells.
But Mouneimne believes his lab is on the way to identifying ways that would allow researchers to identify and treat those "traveling cells" before they can migrate through the connective tissue and create tumors in other parts of the body.
"Metastasis is a very inefficient process. Many cancer cells die before making it to the secondary site, and many can't develop a tumor even after they do reach other organs," Mouneimne said. "It's a rare event, but when it does happen, it's incredibly destructive. Our goal is to identify cancer cells at the earliest steps of metastasis and prevent them from spreading to other organs."
Changes in a cell's cytoskeleton – what Mouneimne calls "the backbone of the cell" – are what affect a cell's shape and behavior. His lab has determined that the structure of actin is what differentiates a healthy cytoskeleton from an unstable one. Mouneimne is looking into how distinct modes of actin cytoskeletal reorganization, which are driven by intracellular and environmental signals, can cause changes in multiple basic cellular processes and how several different combinations of these changes could promote invasion.
Two of the proteins that regulate actin cytoskeletal organization are profilin-1, which promotes cell migration and invasion in some contexts, with potentially deadly consequences, and profilin-2, which can suppress these functions by associating with the protein EVL (pronounced "evil"). In this context, "evil" is a good thing.
"We checked the levels of profilin-2 in mammary cells, and it was significantly expressed and it played an important role in regulating the migratory behavior of normal mammary epithelial cells and of breast cancer cells."
Mouneimne then used time-lapse imaging to track the ways in which these proteins (specifically profilin-1 and -2) influence cell migration. Microscopy was vital in allowing Mouneimne's lab to follow through on its hypothesis – profilin-2 interacts with EVL to prohibit cell migration/invasion and possibly cancer metastasis.
The treatments that could potentially arise from Mouneimne's work wouldn't necessarily attack the original tumor, but prevent that tumor from spreading to other parts of the body to wreak havoc on otherwise healthy tissue.
"The rates of cancer recurrence and metastasis have been reduced significantly during the last decade thanks to personalized treatments that fit individual patients, but there is still a lot of work to be done in this area," Mouneimne said.
The potential significance of this work is staggering. Mouneimne finds that many traditional breast cancer treatments, while successful in treating the original tumor site, actually lower the levels of EVL and create a situation that may promote the spreading of any cancer cells that do happen to survive.
"We're still in the process of looking at this disease from every angle possible to determine which types of treatments make the most sense for individual patients," Mouneimne said.
From the microscope to the computer screen, Mouneimne is looking at angles few have even thought to explore.
Recently, Mouneimne has developed ways to animate his images to fully illustrate various cell migration patterns. Many of Mouneimne's images and animations are available at his website, http://mouneimne.arizona.edu.