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Survivor develops career in cancer research

Chris Lucchesi

Chris Lucchesi in the laboratory of Ying Huang, MD, PhD, at Upstate Medical University.

Chris Lucchesi‘s relationship with cancer began in a high school AP Biology class.

“We started learning about cancer and realizing that it‘s nothing really crazy,” says Lucchesi, a graduate student in pharmacology in his fifth year at Upstate. “You have a cell in your body that gets a mutation, and then your own cells start to propagate at an uncontrolled rate and, more or less, learn how to survive better. They are more advanced cells, I guess you could say.”

“Cancer wasn‘t like a virus or some pathogen that you could just target and kill. It was your own body that was going haywire. That intrigued me, that your own body is learning to survive better but ultimately leads to your demise. It was fascinating.”

Then it got personal.

Lucchesi was 17 when he was diagnosed with an esthesioneuroblastoma, a cancer that begins in certain very early forms of nerve cells and usually affects children age 5 and younger. His was located in his maxillary sinus, below his right eye. He underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“I‘m 10 years out now, and everything seems to be clear,” he says.

Today, Lucchesi is working toward his doctorate in pharmacology. He works in the laboratory of Ying Huang, MD, PhD. Their research focuses on a tumor suppressor protein that was discovered to be down regulated in esophageal cancers. Such proteins can stop a cell‘s growth or cause its death.

In the petri dishes where Lucchesi grows cancer cells, he makes the cells express this particular protein – and they all die. When he takes non-tumorigenic breast tissue cells and makes them express the protein, they survive.

If that is not fascinating enough, take it a step further.

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. By switching one of the amino acids in the chain with a different amino acid in this particular protein, Lucchesi says, the protein completely changes its actions and becomes a protein that helps cancer cells grow, also known as an oncogene.

Such a complete about-face is meaningful, as oncologists strive to customize cancer therapies to individual patients, Lucchesi says with all the hope and fascination of that high school biology student.

“If you can cut out the tumor from somebody and do pathology on it and realize that it has this mutation,” he says, “well, then you will know what chemotherapies not to use, because they‘re not going to be effective for those cancer cells.”

Hear an interview with Lucchesi