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Octavian Bucur, MD, PhD, Instructor in Pathology and Medicine, Harvard Medical School.


My research interests focus on developing and applying novel experimental and computational strategies to improve disease diagnostics and therapeutics for cancer patients:

  1. Development of Expansion Pathology: physical tissue expansion for diagnostic pathology and research (Nature Biotechnology, 2017, in press)
  2. Development of new methods for the identification of the 3D morphological hallmarks of carcinogenesis (AACR-Millennium Pharm. Award at the 2015 American Association for Cancer Research, Philadelphia, PA)



Meta-analysis of transcriptome data identifies a novel 5-gene pancreatic adenocarcinoma classifier.

Abstract: Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is largely incurable due to late diagnosis. Superior early detection biomarkers are critical to improving PDAC survival and risk stratification.Optimized meta-analysis of PDAC transcriptome datasets identified and validated key PDAC biomarkers. PDAC-specific expression of a 5-gene biomarker panel was measured by qRT-PCR in microdissected patient-derived FFPE tissues. Cell-based assays assessed impact of two of these biomarkers, TMPRSS4 and ECT2, on PDAC cells.A 5-gene PDAC classifier (TMPRSS4, AHNAK2, POSTN, ECT2, SERPINB5) achieved on average 95% sensitivity and 89% specificity in discriminating PDAC from non-tumor samples in four training sets and similar performance (sensitivity = 94%, specificity = 89.6%) in five independent validation datasets. This classifier accurately discriminated PDAC from chronic pancreatitis (AUC = 0.83), other cancers (AUC = 0.89), and non-tumor from PDAC precursors (AUC = 0.92) in three independent datasets. Importantly, the classifier distinguished PanIN from healthy pancreas in the PDX1-Cre;LSL-KrasG12D PDAC mouse model. Discriminatory expression of the PDAC classifier genes was confirmed in microdissected FFPE samples of PDAC and matched surrounding non-tumor pancreas or pancreatitis. Notably, knock-down of TMPRSS4 and ECT2 reduced PDAC soft agar growth and cell viability and TMPRSS4 knockdown also blocked PDAC migration and invasion.This study identified and validated a highly accurate 5-gene PDAC classifier for discriminating PDAC and early precursor lesions from non-malignant tissue that may facilitate early diagnosis and risk stratification upon validation in prospective clinical trials. Cell-based experiments of two overexpressed proteins encoded by the panel, TMPRSS4 and ECT2, suggest a causal link to PDAC development and progression, confirming them as potential therapeutic targets.

Pub.: 20 Mar '16, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

An updated h-index measures both the primary and total scientific output of a researcher.

Abstract: The growing interest in scientometry stems from ethical concerns related to the proper evaluation of scientific contributions of an author working in a hard science. In the absence of a consensus, institutions may use arbitrary methods for evaluating scientists for employment and promotion. There are several indices in use that attempt to establish the most appropriate and suggestive position of any scientist in the field he/she works in. A scientist's Hirsch-index (h-index) quantifies their total effective published output, but h-index summarizes the total value of their published work without regard to their contribution to each publication. Consequently, articles where the author was a primary contributor carry the same weight as articles where the author played a minor role. Thus, we propose an updated h-index named Hirsch(p,t)-index that informs about both total scientific output and output where the author played a primary role. Our measure, h(p,t) = h(p),h(t), is composed of the h-index h(t) and the h-index calculated for articles where the author was a key contributor; i.e. first/shared first or senior or corresponding author. Thus, a h(p,t) = 5,10 would mean that the author has 5 articles as first, shared first, senior or corresponding author with at least 5 citations each, and 10 total articles with at least 10 citations each. This index can be applied in biomedical disciplines and in all areas where the first and last position on an article are the most important. Although other indexes, such as r- and w-indexes, were proposed for measuring the authors output based on the position of researchers within the published articles, our simpler strategy uses the already established algorithms for h-index calculation and may be more practical to implement.

Pub.: 28 Oct '15, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

PLK1 is a binding partner and a negative regulator of FOXO3 tumor suppressor.

Abstract: FOXO family members (FOXOs: FOXO1, FOXO3, FOXO4 and FOXO6) are important transcription factors and tumor suppressors controlling cell homeostasis and cell fate. They are characterized by an extraordinary functional diversity, being involved in regulation of cell cycle, proliferation, apoptosis, DNA damage response, oxidative detoxification, cell differentiation and stem cell maintenance, cell metabolism, angiogenesis, cardiac and other organ's development, aging, and other critical cellular processes. FOXOs are tightly regulated by reversible phosphorylation, ubiquitination, acetylation and methylation. Interestingly, the known kinases phosphorylate only a small percentage of the known or predicted FOXOs phosphorylation sites, suggesting that additional kinases that phosphorylate and control FOXOs activity exist. In order to identify novel regulators of FOXO3, we have employed a proteomics screening strategy. Using HeLa cancer cell line and a Tandem Affinity Purification followed by Mass Spectrometry analysis, we identified several proteins as binding partners of FOXO3. Noteworthy, Polo Like Kinase 1 (PLK1) proto-oncogene was one of the identified FOXO3 binding partners. PLK1 plays a critical role during cell cycle (G2-M transition and all phases of mitosis) and in maintenance of genomic stability. Our experimental results presented in this manuscript demonstrate that FOXO3 and PLK1 exist in a molecular complex through most of the phases of the cell cycle, with a higher occurrence in the G2-M cell cycle phases. PLK1 induces translocation of FOXO3 from the nucleus to the cytoplasm and suppresses FOXO3 activity, measured by the decrease in the pro-apoptotic Bim protein levels and in the cell cycle inhibitor protein p27. Furthermore, PLK1 can directly phosphorylate FOXO3 in an in vitro kinase assay. These results present the discovery of PLK1 proto-oncogene as a binding partner and a negative regulator of FOXO3 tumor suppressor.

Pub.: 01 Apr '14, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Extensive rewiring of epithelial-stromal co-expression networks in breast cancer.

Abstract: Epithelial-stromal crosstalk plays a critical role in invasive breast cancer pathogenesis; however, little is known on a systems level about how epithelial-stromal interactions evolve during carcinogenesis.We develop a framework for building genome-wide epithelial-stromal co-expression networks composed of pairwise co-expression relationships between mRNA levels of genes expressed in the epithelium and stroma across a population of patients. We apply this method to laser capture micro-dissection expression profiling datasets in the setting of breast carcinogenesis. Our analysis shows that epithelial-stromal co-expression networks undergo extensive rewiring during carcinogenesis, with the emergence of distinct network hubs in normal breast, and estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor-negative invasive breast cancer, and the emergence of distinct patterns of functional network enrichment. In contrast to normal breast, the strongest epithelial-stromal co-expression relationships in invasive breast cancer mostly represent self-loops, in which the same gene is co-expressed in epithelial and stromal regions. We validate this observation using an independent laser capture micro-dissection dataset and confirm that self-loop interactions are significantly increased in cancer by performing computational image analysis of epithelial and stromal protein expression using images from the Human Protein Atlas.Epithelial-stromal co-expression network analysis represents a new approach for systems-level analyses of spatially localized transcriptomic data. The analysis provides new biological insights into the rewiring of epithelial-stromal co-expression networks and the emergence of epithelial-stromal co-expression self-loops in breast cancer. The approach may facilitate the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics targeting epithelial-stromal interactions in cancer.

Pub.: 20 Jun '15, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Blocks to thyroid cancer cell apoptosis can be overcome by inhibition of the MAPK and PI3K/AKT pathways.

Abstract: Current treatment for recurrent and aggressive/anaplastic thyroid cancers is ineffective. Novel targeted therapies aimed at the inhibition of the mutated oncoprotein BRAF(V600E) have shown promise in vivo and in vitro but do not result in cellular apoptosis. TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) induces apoptosis in a tumor-selective manner by activating the extrinsic apoptotic pathway. Here, we show that a TRAIL-R2 agonist antibody, lexatumumab, induces apoptosis effectively in some thyroid cancer cell lines (HTh-7, TPC-1 and BCPAP), while more aggressive anaplastic cell lines (8505c and SW1736) show resistance. Treatment of the most resistant cell line, 8505c, using lexatumumab in combination with the BRAF(V600E) inhibitor, PLX4720, and the PI3K inhibitor, LY294002, (triple-drug combination) sensitizes the cells by triggering both the extrinsic and intrinsic apoptotic pathways in vitro as well as 8505c orthotopic thyroid tumors in vivo. A decrease in anti-apoptotic proteins, pAkt, Bcl-xL, Mcl-1 and c-FLIP, coupled with an increase in the activator proteins, Bax and Bim, results in an increase in the Bax to Bcl-xL ratio that appears to be critical for sensitization and subsequent apoptosis of these resistant cells. Our results suggest that targeting the death receptor pathway in thyroid cancer can be a promising strategy for inducing apoptosis in thyroid cancer cells, although combination with other kinase inhibitors may be needed in some of the more aggressive tumors initially resistant to apoptosis.

Pub.: 08 Mar '14, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

killerFLIP: a novel lytic peptide specifically inducing cancer cell death.

Abstract: One of the objectives in the development of effective cancer therapy is induction of tumor-selective cell death. Toward this end, we have identified a small peptide that, when introduced into cells via a TAT cell-delivery system, shows a remarkably potent cytoxicity in a variety of cancer cell lines and inhibits tumor growth in vivo, whereas sparing normal cells and tissues. This fusion peptide was named killerFLIP as its sequence was derived from the C-terminal domain of c-FLIP, an anti-apoptotic protein. Using structure activity analysis, we determined the minimal bioactive core of killerFLIP, namely killerFLIP-E. Structural analysis of cells using electron microscopy demonstrated that killerFLIP-E triggers cell death accompanied by rapid (within minutes) plasma membrane permeabilization. Studies of the structure of the active core of killerFLIP (-E) indicated that it possesses amphiphilic properties and self-assembles into micellar structures in aqueous solution. The biochemical properties of killerFLIP are comparable to those of cationic lytic peptides, which participate in defense against pathogens and have also demonstrated anticancer properties. We show that the pro-cell death effects of killerFLIP are independent of its sequence similarity with c-FLIPL as killerFLIP-induced cell death was largely apoptosis and necroptosis independent. A killerFLIP-E variant containing a scrambled c-FLIPL motif indeed induced similar cell death, suggesting the importance of the c-FLIPL residues but not of their sequence. Thus, we report the discovery of a promising synthetic peptide with novel anticancer activity in vitro and in vivo.

Pub.: 02 Nov '13, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Combination of bortezomib and mitotic inhibitors down-modulate Bcr-Abl and efficiently eliminates tyrosine-kinase inhibitor sensitive and resistant Bcr-Abl-positive leukemic cells.

Abstract: Emergence of resistance to Tyrosine-Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs), such as imatinib, dasatinib and nilotinib, in Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) demands new therapeutic strategies. We and others have previously established bortezomib, a selective proteasome inhibitor, as an important potential treatment in CML. Here we show that the combined regimens of bortezomib with mitotic inhibitors, such as the microtubule-stabilizing agent Paclitaxel and the PLK1 inhibitor BI2536, efficiently kill TKIs-resistant and -sensitive Bcr-Abl-positive leukemic cells. Combined treatment activates caspases 8, 9 and 3, which correlate with caspase-induced PARP cleavage. These effects are associated with a marked increase in activation of the stress-related MAP kinases p38MAPK and JNK. Interestingly, combined treatment induces a marked decrease in the total and phosphorylated Bcr-Abl protein levels, and inhibits signaling pathways downstream of Bcr-Abl: downregulation of STAT3 and STAT5 phosphorylation and/or total levels and a decrease in phosphorylation of the Bcr-Abl-associated proteins CrkL and Lyn. Moreover, we found that other mitotic inhibitors (Vincristine and Docetaxel), in combination with bortezomib, also suppress the Bcr-Abl-induced pro-survival signals and result in caspase 3 activation. These results open novel possibilities for the treatment of Bcr-Abl-positive leukemias, especially in the imatinib, dasatinib and nilotinib-resistant CML cases.

Pub.: 25 Oct '13, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Poor antibody validation is a challenge in biomedical research: a case study for detection of c-FLIP.

Abstract: Successful translation of findings derived from preclinical studies into effective therapies is critical in biomedical research. Lack of robustness and reproducibility of the preclinical data, due to insufficient number of repeats, inadequate cell-based and mouse models contribute to the poor success rate. Antibodies are widely used in preclinical research, notably to determine the expression of potential therapeutic targets in tissues of interest, including tumors, but also to identify disease and/or treatment response biomarkers. We sought to determine whether the current antibody characterization standards in preclinical research are sufficient to ensure reliability of the data found in peer-reviewed publications. To address this issue, we used detection of the protein c-FLIP, a major factor of resistance to apoptosis, as a proof of concept. Accurate detection of endogenous c-FLIP levels in the preclinical settings is imperative since it is considered as a potential theranostic biomarker. Several sources of c-FLIP antibodies validated by their manufacturer and recommended for western blotting were therefore rigorously tested. We found a wide divergence in immune recognition properties. While these antibodies have been used in many publications, our results show that several of them failed to detect endogenous c-FLIP protein by Western blotting. Our results suggest that antibody validation standards are inadequate, and that systematic use of genetic knockdowns and/or knockouts to establish proof of specificity is critical, even for antibodies previously used in the scientific literature. Because antibodies are fundamental tools in both preclinical and clinical research, ensuring their specificity is crucial.

Pub.: 07 Aug '13, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Apoptotic cell signaling in cancer progression and therapy.

Abstract: Apoptosis is a tightly regulated cell suicide program that plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of tissue homeostasis by eliminating unnecessary or harmful cells. Impairment of this native defense mechanism promotes aberrant cellular proliferation and the accumulation of genetic defects, ultimately resulting in tumorigenesis, and frequently confers drug resistance to cancer cells. The regulation of apoptosis at several levels is essential to maintain the delicate balance between cellular survival and death signaling that is required to prevent disease. Complex networks of signaling pathways act to promote or inhibit apoptosis in response to various cues. Apoptosis can be triggered by signals from within the cell, such as genotoxic stress, or by extrinsic signals, such as the binding of ligands to cell surface death receptors. Various upstream signaling pathways can modulate apoptosis by converging on, and thereby altering the activity of, common central control points within the apoptotic signaling pathways, which involve the BCL-2 family proteins, inhibitor of apoptosis (IAP) proteins, and FLICE-inhibitory protein (c-FLIP). This review highlights the role of these fundamental regulators of apoptosis in the context of both normal apoptotic signaling mechanisms and dysregulated apoptotic pathways that can render cancer cells resistant to cell death. In addition, therapeutic strategies aimed at modulating the activity of BCL-2 family proteins, IAPs, and c-FLIP for the targeted induction of apoptosis are briefly discussed.

Pub.: 23 Feb '11, Pinned: 15 Jun '16

Sensitization of prostate carcinoma cells to Apo2L/TRAIL by a Bcl-2 family protein inhibitor.

Abstract: Overexpression of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family proteins may play an important role in the aggressive behavior of prostate cancer cells and their resistance to therapy. The Bcl-2 homology 3 domain (BH3) is a uniquely important functional element within the pro-apoptotic class of the Bcl-2-related proteins, mediating their ability to dimerize with other Bcl-2-related proteins and promote apoptosis. The BH3 inhibitors (BH3Is) function by disrupting the interactions mediated by the BH3 domain between pro- and anti-apoptotic members of the Bcl-2 family and liberating more Bax/Bak to induce mitochondrial membrane permeabilization. LNCaP-derived C4-2 human prostate cancer cells are quite resistant to non-tagged, human recombinant soluble Apo2 ligand [Apo2L, also Tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-related apoptosis-inducing ligand, TRAIL], a tumor specific drug that is now in clinical trials. However, when Apo2L/TRAIL was combined with the Bcl-xL inhibitor, BH3I-2', it induced apoptosis synergistically through activation of Caspase-8 and the proapoptotic Bcl-2 family member Bid, resulting in the activation of effector Caspase-3 and proteolytic cleavage of Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, events that were blocked by the pan-caspase inhibitor zVAD-fmk. Our data indicate that, in combination with the BH3 mimetic, BH3I-2', Apo2L/TRAIL synergistically induces apoptosis in C4-2 human prostate cancer cells through both the extrinsic and intrinsic apoptotic pathways.

Pub.: 11 Oct '05, Pinned: 15 Jun '16