What is breast cancer?

At the Luker lab in Detroit, Michigan, scientists are trying to answer a very tough question: what is breast cancer? Since each person’s cancer is unique, Dr. Luker has developed a software to visualize the interaction of healthy cells and cancerous cells in each individual patient.

TRANSCRIPT

At the Luker Lab in Detroit, Michigan, scientists are trying to answer a very tough question.

What is breast cancer?

Since each person's cancer is unique, Dr. Luker has developed a software to visualize the interaction of healthy cells and cancerous cells in each individual patient.

Here's the story.

I think it's important for any person to be able to follow their passion and do what brings them joy.

If a girl is interested in fashion, or if she's interested in physics, that should be valued because she's valuable.

Ever since I was little, everybody in my family could tell I was gonna be a scientist.

I mean, my friends called me Professor.

And it was really more a question of what kind of science I might do.

What I do now is protein engineering.

I ended up getting a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry.

But when I met my husband, he was a radiologist.

And he wanted to become a scientist as well.

So we ended up working together in a laboratory that did imaging work.

And so now the engineering that I do of proteins is usually to make things imageable.

So my job is to try to build light-up machines, basically, that report on biochemical events in breast cancer.

We run our lab with a lot of undergraduates in the laboratory.

Right now, we have six.

So a lot of my job is mentoring all day long.

I do my own research.

But I also assist them.

Working with Kathy is awesome.

She is so helpful and encourages me to first try to solve my problems on my own and then is always there for me when I need it.

She's really good at adapting her mentoring style to each individual student.

It's, like, really exciting to me 'cause it's never boring.

There's always something new to learn.

And it's such a great environment.

And it's pretty dynamic.

And there's a ton of interaction.

Research is interesting 'cause you have waves of, like, you're really busy with a lot of experiments.

And then, you know, the next week, maybe you're doing your data analysis and thinking about, like, what to do next and planning.

It's a little bit like you're tryin' to take a big epic journey.

And you need to recruit other people to go along.

The goal is long.

Everybody has a contribution to make.

The heroic part is the courage it comes to take the level of failure, to face that failure every day and put yourself out there and propose something.

Without that kind of courage, uh, you won't be curing any diseases.

We have some cell issues we're trying to solve.

So, basically, I'm just taking care of the cells right now.

We like to split them all, which means, like, take some out of the flasks so that they can grow throughout the weekend, and they don't die from being too overcrowded.

Kind of like a pet.

They need to be, like, fed every day and split every day so there are not too many cells in a flask.

There's a whole lot of work that needs to be done in just understanding, what is the breast cancer?

What is it?

We don't really always have a clear handle on what makes it even a cancer.

I mean, you know, you think that maybe, if you have breast cancer, you have one thing.

But everybody's breast cancer is different.

And the contribution that this type of work makes to that is to try to identify new opportunities for therapeutic targets.

That's usually what this type of work is good for.

So these are the breast cancer cells, right?

Yes.

Yeah.

And then the ones that are out here, are they the ones that are the patient's cells, the normal cells?

Um, the stromal cells.

Stromal cells. Yeah.

Yes.

We have this two-photon microscope, which is, like, a big thing, what I use a lot for a lot of my experiments.

And I'm able to look at cells that have different proteins tagged with different fluorescent proteins.

That's a model of how the woman's cells in her, uh, tumor that are her normal cells interact with her cancer cells and her cancer cells interact with the normal cells.

And actually, they change each other to form a tumor environment.

So there's more than one kind of cell in a tumor.

And those tumors, they speak to the cells around them so much that they actually recruit them for help.

And so that's kinda the nature of her project right now is to chase that down.

How are the cells communicating with each other?

We may not be able to say for sure that cells are dead.

But we will be able to say that they're changed.

I really enjoy the -- the experiments we've done with changing metabolism with breast cancer cells, so changing their glucose or their other nutrients and also then applying chemotherapy drugs to those cells and seeing how your body's environment is gonna affect how those drugs work.

It's almost like being able to go to another world.

So it's thrilling to see what your eyes can't normally see to be able to test it, to be able to detect it, to see that it's there.

So I think it just brings a sense of wonder to people.

Without these kinds of positive relationships, you know, the work environment, it would be hard to get up every morning and face that kind of... You know, it's like, 'Okay.

We're gonna cure breast cancer.'

That is a big, big goal.

On a day-to-day basis, most researchers find that they can't hold that big goal up in front of them every day, or they can't face it.

Once in a while, you pick your head up, and you look.

You have to reflect back and think, 'Okay.

What is my science today gonna help with in the future?'

It's inspiring.

And it's -- definitely pushes me forward every day.

To be able to tell, like, my family members or my friends that I'm doing something in cancer research is so cool.

And it's really worth it.

And people care.

Kathy is a STEM hero because she is pioneer in the field.

She's really good at adapting.

She's one of the smartest people that I know.

She is so fun to work with.

And she has taught me so much, not just about science but how to be better person in general.