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Pushing the Bounds of Inquiry

The question of how healthy cells turn into cancer cells has daunted researchers for decades. Then a group of Tufts biologists was able to shed new light on how breast cancers develop by stepping outside of scientific convention. Charlotte Kuperwasser’s lab at Tufts University School of Medicine collaborated with MIT’s Whitehead Institute to produce a new theory in cell plasticity, the ability of some cells to morph into different types of cells.

Kuperwasser and her colleagues tested a theory that came out of quantitative modeling conducted at the Whitehead Institute. The partnership uncovered a link between cellular plasticity and a genetic mutation in mice, possibly a key factor in how breast cancers develop.

“Working with other disciplines expands the possibilities of research,” says Kuperwasser, associate professor in the Department of Developmental, Molecular, and Chemical Biology. Her lab has a long history of collaboration with experts in other fields. “Our group’s strengths are in the biological sciences and animal modeling, molecular biology, and some biochemistry. But when it comes to things like quantitative biology, mathematical modeling, or synthetic chemistry, we look to others for that expertise.”

Now a substantial gift from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation will help further advance research that bridges different scientific fields. The funding will support research in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Laboratory for the Convergence of Biomedical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences. The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation has funded convergence programs in 12 U.S. universities, Cambridge University in the U.K., and Tel Aviv University in Israel.

“At a time when funding from traditional sources is so restricted, this gift will be a springboard to continue this kind of collaboration,” says Kuperwasser. She plans to use the gift to bring together as many individuals and disciplines as she can through working groups and symposia and by supporting postdoctoral research with an interdisciplinary focus.

Kuperwasser believes interdisciplinary research has vast potential. Not only could continued collaborations generate new hypotheses on the origins of cancer, they could also expand the possibilities of personalized medicine, producing therapies tailored to how specific types of cancer originate. “This gift is an exciting conduit,” she says. “It allows us to expand our creative borders and research.”