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Of Mice and Men: Exploring the Genetic Roots of Cancer


Of Mice and Men: Exploring the Genetic Roots of Cancer

By Peter Catapano

Masaaki Hamaguchi, Ph.D., peers into the future of cancer research.
Photo by Chris Taggart
Masaaki Hamaguchi, Ph.D., likes to play. For instance, when he is not working toward the development of gene-based treatment for breast cancer, he likes to take his two young children to the Bronx Zoo. He is also a devotee of Go, the 4000-year-old strategic board game with an incalculable number of positions (one estimate is 10 to the 750th power). He even describes his work as a kind of competition, albeit an exciting and important one.

In 2002, Hamaguchi, 46, now an associate professor of biological science on the Rose Hill campus, discovered a gene that by all indications has the ability to suppress the growth of breast cancer. While working at the highly regarded Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island, he finished first, he said, in the “race to discover the meaningful gene”—that rare one that has a direct effect on cancer. It is a race in which legions of scientists around the world compete, year after year.
“I lost three times before,” Hamaguchi said, referring to earlier research initiatives. “This time I won.”

One reward Hamaguchi received was a grant totaling $1,600,000 from the National Institutes of Health, a portion of which will fund his continuing study of the cancer gene at Fordham through March 2008.

“Of course you need to be good,” he said. “But you have to have some luck, too.”

Sitting in his Larkin Hall laboratory, dressed in jeans and a casual shirt beneath his lab coat, Hamaguchi smiles easily and often, and appears youthful enough to be mistaken for a grad student — not the expected picture of someone who does the sort of intense work he describes.

Hamaguchi and his researchers at Cold Spring Harbor identified the “meaningful gene”—dubbed DBC2, for “deleted in breast cancer”—by way of its absence, he said. During their research, they found that the gene was absent or inactive in the breast tumor specimens they examined. To determine the effect it would have on the cancer, it was reproduced from another source by a method called “positional cloning,” then injected it into the tumor. The results were as hoped for: the gene killed the cancer cells, or stopped them from growing.

“[Hamaguchi’s] research is cutting edge,
[but] he can present it in a
way that’s accessible to everyone.”
The Cold Spring Harbor results are especially promising because DCB2 is linked to sporadic (non-hereditary) breast cancer, by far the more prevalent type. Only about 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary, and genes that suppress that type have already been identified.

Last year, Hamaguchi moved his laboratory and entire research operation to the Bronx campus from Cold Spring. (Almost all of it. “Only the mice are still there,” he said.)

Robert Ross, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biological Sciences said that Hamaguchi’s ability to explain complex scientific topics clearly made him valuable to his students.

“When you’re really good at something, you can make it look easy,” Ross said of his colleague. “His research is cutting edge, [but] he can present it in a way that’s accessible to everyone.”

Ross said that Hamaguchi’s experience in medicine—nearly a decade as a resident and surgeon in major hospitals in Japan—in addition to seven years of teaching at the Watson School of Biological Sciences, helped develop his communication skills.

For his part, Hamaguchi enjoys teaching at Fordham, and thinks he has a good indication of his class’ popularity. “The attendance record is 100 percent,” he said. “That is amazing!”

By his own account, the professor was not always the model student. “I grew up in a very rural town in Japan,” he said. “There was nothing much there—a fishery, a few small farms. The school was near a river and on sunny days all the kids would leave the school, take off all their clothes and swim in the river completely naked,” he laughed, obviously delighted by the memory.

“I really didn’t start real studying until the seventh grade,” he added. It was at that point that his father, a teacher, sent him to a boarding school where the academics were a bit more rigorous.
His father’s strategy continues to bear fruit to this day. Hamaguchi reports continued progress at the laboratory, as he and his team learn more about the mechanism that makes DBC2 work. “We have promising data, but as a scientist, I have to be a pessimist. My mentor used to tell me, ‘You have to be as pessimistic as possible without being depressed. Then you have to test every unlikely possibility.’ ”

Hamaguchi said that he and his colleagues are examining how the DBC2 gene kills breast cancer cells. “I think we have found the mechanism,” he said. “We are working towards the development of a drug and hope to have a primordial treatment within five to six years.”

And in the short term?

“Next week,” he smiled, “I’m going to Long Island to take care of the mice.”

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