photo of Chengyi Tu working in lab

Chengyi Tu, a graduate student working with Professor Janet Zoldan, uses a microfluidic device to demonstrate delivery of proteins into multiple myeloma cells.

A noninvasive method to gain information about the progression of multiple myeloma, a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow, is in development.

Professor Janet Zoldan and Chengyi Tu, a third-year graduate student in her lab, have discovered a way to monitor protein synthesis in live cancer cells, which could advance drug screening, diagnostics, and offer personalized medication options in cancer care.

Understanding protein synthesis is key to learning how cancer progresses. Many cancer drugs are based on blocking protein synthesis. The ability to monitor protein synthesis in cancer cells could give researchers a powerful tool in measuring resistance of cancer drugs.

Monitoring protein synthesis could also be used for cancer diagnostics. After administering a simple blood test, physicians would be armed with information that would enable them to deliver a personalized medication plan based on a patient’s cancer progression.

The research, which was recently published in Integrative Biology, is a collaboration between Zoldan’s team, Noopur Raje, Director of the Center for Multiple Myeloma at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Zeev Smilansky, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer of Anima Biotech.

The collaboration began after Zoldan presented research at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, describing how she used a microfluidic device to effectively deliver proteins to skin cells and reprogram them into induced pluripotent stem cells. Raje had been attempting to deliver proteins and tRNAs unsuccessfully into multiple myeloma cells, which are difficult cells to transfect. They started working together, using Zoldan’s microfluidic technique, Raje’s expertise with multiple myeloma, and fluorescent-labeled tRNAs, as FRET pairs, supplied by Smilansky’s company. Using these FRET signals they have developed the first assay to monitor protein translation in single live cancer cells.

These findings will launch the next stage of efforts, where researchers will test with myeloma cells derived from patients to correlate protein synthesis with cancer staging and predict drug resistance.

This story is part of our Research Bench to Better Living series, which explores collaborations between biomedical engineering and healthcare.