Charting how normal cells help cancer cells

In a tumour, cancer cells grow and multiply in an uncontrolled manner. However, the cancer cells also need help from other, normal cells for the tumour to develop. This network of ‘helper cells’ is the focus of Kristian Pietras’ research.

Kristian Pietras - LITEN

Two years ago, Kristian Pietras left Karolinska Institutet for Lund, attracted by the opportunity to establish an entirely new research group at Medicon Village.

Kristian Pietras is Professor of Cancer Research and is regarded as one of the Faculty of Medicine’s young stars. The year before last, he received a grant from the European Research Council that gives both funding and prestige in the research community. He has also received large grants from the Swedish Research Council and the Swedish Cancer Society.

“Yes, things are going well for us, and it’s fun. Being a researcher does test your patience – everything takes so long – but with the fierce competition there is nowadays, you’re happy if you can get enough money for a well-functioning research group”, he says.

Kristian Pietras was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California and then worked at Karolinska Institutet (KI). Eyebrows were raised two years ago when he chose to leave KI for Lund: many of his colleagues in Stockholm thought it was a strange thing to do.

The main reason for Kristian Pietras’ move was not that he wanted to become a professor (even if, at the age of 38, the professorship was the first permanent job he had ever had). Neither was it the chance to return to his roots (even if he now lives just outside Höllviken, where he grew up). Instead, it was the opportunity to develop an entirely new research group at Medicon Village.

“It’s been every bit as good as I had hoped. We moved into empty premises just a year ago, and had to organise absolutely everything – from what to do with our rubbish to where to place our equipment. Everything works well now and our cooperation with research groups and businesses close by has been valuable”, he says.

The division to which Kristian Pietras belongs, Translational Cancer Research, is made up of approximately 60 people divided into various research groups. Close to them at Medicon Village are also the strategic research centre Create Health from the Department of Immunotechnology, and the cancer genetics group from the Division of Oncology.

“We have access to patient samples from the oncology researchers if we need to look at biomarkers and different cell types in a tumour. We have also been able to help other researchers who have wanted to know things like what effect a certain protein has on a tumour. We also collaborate with a company called Spago that is developing better contrast agents for MRI scans of tumours”, explains Kristian Pietras.

His own research is about collaboration between tumour cells and other, normal cells that help the tumour get started. Blood vessels are one example – without blood vessels a tumour cannot grow larger than a pea. The tumour therefore has to get blood vessel cells from its surroundings to grow into the tumour and give it oxygen and nutrients.

Connective tissue is also necessary for a tumour. Connective tissue cells provide stability, but also have other important functions. Kristian Pietras and his colleagues have even shown that a certain type of connective tissue cell can control the growth of breast cancer so that it becomes more malignant.

These findings mean that researchers have identified what they call a target for new drugs. If they can find a way to disturb the signals in the connective tissue that make a tumour more malignant, the results should be a less dangerous tumour and patient recovery.

The research on the role of connective tissue in a tumour was pure basic research, but these possible applications have now emerged. This makes Kristian Pietras particularly pleased.

“Funding providers and governments are very interested in practical, useful results. Getting funding for basic research is often much more difficult than getting funding for applied research. However, here we have an example of basic research that did not have any applications at all in view, and that has still shown that it could lead to a treatment for cancer!” he says.

A third area on which the research group works is biomarkers – substances in a patient’s cells that can help doctors to choose the best treatment for each individual. Because each type of cancer has a lot of sub-groups – breast cancer alone is believed to have at least five sub-groups – such tools are very much needed in the health service.

Kristian Pietras brought three doctoral students with him from Stockholm. The group has now grown to four doctoral students, five postdocs and a technician. Unfortunately, the number of hours in a week has not developed at the same rate, and the committees, boards and suchlike on which a professor is expected to sit take up a lot of time.

“My own research group can sometimes get a bit neglected, because the members are so independent. If you are not careful, work also affects your family life. But I try to take care to be home for dinner every day”, says Kristian Pietras. With a third child that is only a few months old, he has his hands full both at work and at home.

Text: Ingela Björck

Photo: Gunnar Menander