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Lab at UWRF approaches 20 years of studying cancer

Falcon News Service

September 19, 2019

Nestled away in the corner of the fourth floor of the Agricultural Science Building at UW-River Falls is the office of Professor Timothy Lyden. Lyden, who teaches anatomy in the Biology Department, first started teaching at UWRF in 2001 after spending time at Ohio State University and Wright University.

In 2001, he created the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center. Now, 18 years later, Lyden’s lab is still going strong.

“What we do in the lab is apply tissue engineering techniques on a very small scale in order to model different kinds of tissue, normal tissue in some cases and cancerous tissue in other cases,” Lyden said.

The Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center has some physical space dedicated to itself within the Agriculture Science building. It has a microscope suite on the second floor, joint facilities on the fourth floor, and Lyden’s personal lab on the fifth floor. Spaces used by center are also used by other faculty and for other teaching purposes.

“Because we are a small school, obviously we have some shared resources,” Lyden said.

The lab is run by Lyden but he has several undergraduate students who contribute to projects.

“During a given year we have between five and 10 students pass through the lab in a variety of different ways,” Lyden said. “There’s a wide variety of types of people that work.”

Activities in the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center have included research on melanoma, harvesting tissue from the fetuses of chicken eggs, and work with the stem cells in cow milk.

“Our purpose and our focus in our lab is looking at the cellular level of how cells put themselves together and coordinate their interactions to go from being individual cells to building a tissue and then those tissues building whole organs,” Lyden said.

The Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center is constantly running several simultaneous projects in specific bioengineering research. Cancer research is currently the main focus of the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center. Lyden and his students have worked with other labs in the past relating to cancer research. The lab also worked on the development of stromal, or fat tissue.

“We became interested in the stromal tissue because it’s a target for cancer cells. When they spread in the body one of the places they spread is into or through fat tissue.” Lyden said. This led Lyden to a specific focus lately on breast cancer and its relationship with stromal tissue.

Through his worked at the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center and experience in the world of anatomy and bioengineering, Lyden said he believes that cancer is beatable. However, he notes, “It’s very important to understand that cancer is not actually a disease. It’s actually over 200 different sub-diseases.”

Lyden goes on to say that there are hundreds of different cells that all respond differently to cancer, and that looking into a specific cancerous sub-disease may be the way to fight the disease instead of an overall overview of cancer.

“It’s very doubtful that drugs, chemicals, radiation, or surgery, which are the standards today, that those in the long run will be the big answer to the cancer problem,” Lyden said. “I think in the shorter run, say 15 to 20 years, it’s very likely that a better understanding of cancer biology through studies like what we’re doing is allowing people to better understand not how to cure it necessarily, but how to control it.”

He added, “I think it’s very possible in the next 15 years that we may reach a point where cancer becomes a chronic disease rather than a mortal disease.”

Lyden said he believes the disease may transition away from a death sentence or a near death experience in some cases, to something that with proper treatment may prevent cancer from metastasizing and killing individuals. Lyden likens the potential future of cancer to HIV, which has a high mortality rate when untreated, but when treated correctly and in a timely manner may become a chronic issue for the patient.

While Lyden and his team have stayed active with their cancer research, the lab’s work at UW-River Falls doesn’t come without its challenges.

“There are hurdles that we face doing this kind of research here at River Falls,” Lyden said. “We are funded reasonably by the institution, but we’ve had budget crises for years and years now, so there are always challenges like that. There are very common hurdles, there are never enough equipment, funding is always tough to come by and there’s never enough of it, and usually there is not enough trained personal.”

Lyden said the biggest hurdle at UW-River Falls is that “students come here and get trained and leave.” He mentioned that it is hard for this school to match the output of big research institutions, saying, “We have to settle for smaller contributions, but we have been successful on that front.”

Despite the hurdles, the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center inches ever closer to its twentieth year on campus. As the lab continues to function, Lyden and his team will continue to develop their knowledge and understanding of metastasis regarding breast cancer.