Prof. Yaron Shav-Tal: Seeking the "On and Off Switch" to Cancer Cells

In the laboratory of Prof. Yaron Shav-Tal, new imaging techniques based on time-lapse fluorescent microscopy are making it possible to characterize genetic processes that occur inside the living nucleus. While focusing mainly on how genes are switched "on" and "off" in normal cells, he is also looking at how this process differs in the case of cancer. It has been found that cancerous growths occur primarily when a gene gets "stuck" in the "on" position, causing cells to multiply out of control. 

Prof. Shav-Tal, Senior Lecturer in the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at BIU and a member of the Nano Medicine Center at the Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), has found the mechanism behind the "switch" for a particular gene — Cyclin D1 — that has been convincingly implicated in breast cancer. It's only a single gene in a very complex disease, but it's an exciting new insight into the workings — and eventual understanding and treatment — of all types of cancer.

In order to achieve this goal, Shav–Tal and his team are focusing on the gene expression pathway, and specifically on mRNA dynamics in living cell systems. They study dynamic cell processes on the single-molecule, single-gene and single-cell level using time-lapse fluorescent microscopy and subsequent kinetic analysis.

Shav-Tal, who acquired his BSc at BIU and completed his MSc and PhD at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, joined BIU’s faculty in 2005, after completing a three-year stint as a research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He returned to BIU as part of the University’s “Returning Scientists” program, aimed to reverse Israel's brain drain by bringing Israeli scientists home from leading universities abroad.

Shav-Tal explains how he and his team were able to develop the innovative “switch” technique, which will enable easier and faster identification of pre-cancerous cells: “The cell nucleus contains the genetic material (DNA, RNA) required for cellular function. For many years the nucleus was considered an organelle containing an entangled mixture of nucleic acids and proteins.”  Today, explains Shav-Tal, scientists know that internal organization exists within the nucleus. “There are a number of nuclear bodies in the inter-chromatin space, while the genome is packed in chromosomes that are organized in specific chromosome territories within the nuclear volume. Some regions are condensed and regarded less active, while open DNA regions are assumed active and transcribe mRNAs that travel through the inter-chromatin space on the way to the nuclear envelope and the cytoplasm.”

Alterations in nuclear architecture are observed in cancer cells, yet the complete functions of these structures and their dynamics are not well understood even in normal cells.

The author of numerous scientific articles, book chapters and other publications, Shav-Tal is a world- renowned expert in his field who has won several prestigious awards, including the Robert Feulgen Prize, the Excellence in Research Prize of the Director General of the Israel Ministry of Health, the Outstanding Postdoctoral Research Scholar Prize given by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and the Sam Cohen (Windhoek) Scholarship (SAZF).

Shav-Tal says that his interest in this specific field of research began when he was doing his doctoral dissertation, which focused on the cell nucleus. “I realized that the cell nucleus isn’t just a “bowl of soup” with genes, molecules and proteins freely swimming in it, as it was once thought. There is a strict order to all these components, and the nucleus contains specific structures.”  Shav-Tal decided to look for work in a leading lab where he could study cells of living organisms. I ended up at an excellent lab in New York, and was provided with all the technological equipment required for my research.”

 Much like many other cancer researchers, Shav-Tal doesn’t have an answer to the age-old question – why is there still no cure for cancer? “There is no magic formula,” he explains. “Cancer is not one disease. It is a range of different maladies caused by any number of factors, and so there cannot be just one cure. There are impressive advancements in this field and many types of cancer are already being treated successfully, especially when detected early. But the road to abolishing cancer is still long.”

Fully aware of these current limitations, Shav-Tal is still hopeful: “No one, not even leading experts in this field, can tell us how long it will take to find a cure, and if the disease can even be completely cured. But time is of the essence. Especially for those already suffering from the disease.   And that is why I always remember what another researcher once told me: Don't Leave for Tomorrow What You Can Do Today.”

Learn more about Prof. Shav-Tal's work to find the genetic "on and off" switch to cancer cells in this video
For more on Prof. Shav-Tal click here.