Research team uses mice to combat cancer

Ali Ahmed and Catherine Marfin

Ted Mills has been metabolically rearranging the cells of mice since 2003 in an effort to impede the growth of cancer cells.

Mills, an associate professor of pharmacy and toxicology at UT, has assembled a research team at the University that has discovered a method of blocking an energy pathway needed by cancer cells to reproduce.

Cancer is a disease characterized by unfettered cell division, in which cells need energy and mass in order to divide and become a tumor. By manipulating cell proteins, Mills and his team have created a method of training mice to burn energy at an accelerated rate so the cancer cells can no longer divide and accumulate.

Because of the rapid cell division they require, the metabolism of the cancer cells isn’t flexible enough to support this change in the mice’s bodies.

“Basically, our research is all about telling the cancer cells they can’t get what they need anymore,” graduate student Ashley Solmonson, who is also a member of Mills’ research team, said. “You can have a car all day long, but if you don’t have any gas, it just won’t work.”

Mills said the project, which started over a decade ago, came from his longtime interest in metabolism and disease. The findings of the research were published in a fall 2015 edition of Nature Communications, according to a Jan. 6 UT press release.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the metabolism of cells and how this can affect the body,” Mills said. “The nature of these discoveries is the culmination of the research and discoveries my team and I have made since then.”

According to Mills, the mice have shown several positive effects as a result of their metabolic rearrangement.

“The mice have become incredibly resistant not only to cancer but to other aging diseases such as obesity,” Mills said. “There are many benefits to the research beyond cancer resistance, and there are now a host of things we’re trying to study these mice for.”

Mills said this research opens the possibility for more modernized cancer treatments.

“Our research is focused on stopping the growth and development of tumors early on,” Mills said. “As a result of our findings, we might be able to eventually develop a therapy or drug that does the same thing as the mice so that we have a global strategy for targeting all cancers at once.”