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Golden Scholars: Professors at Berkeley help cure cancer and marriage conflicts

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The number-one public university in the world tackles problems ranging from cancer to fights between spouses.

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Quick links

Congratulations to Professors Christopher Chang, Ali Javey, and Michael Rape for being on the list of 30 finalists for the 2014 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists!

Celebrate the one-year anniversary of the name "Livermorium!" There are only six cities that have been honored by lending their name to an element on the periodic table; one-third of those cities are in the Bay Area, but none of them are Palo Alto.

NPR's list of 300 best commencement speeches (you'll have to search for "Berkeley" manually) features six from UC Berkeley, including 2009, which was just a glorious year to graduate from Berkeley.

How do the Red Hot Chili Peppers cause aging, obesity, and diabetes?

Cancer bad!

whats next are you guys interviewing cancer
by the beer on May 27, 2014 | 3:33 PM

Ask and you shall receive.

While we continue to wait for Proposition 469 to passwhich would ban all cancerthere's a lot of research into cancer treatments, most notably the drug taxol. While taxol was discovered nearly 50 years ago, its mechanism of action is only just now being understood thanks to the lab of UC Berkeley's Eva Nogales.

We have long understood that taxol targets a cell's cytoskelton (which is, well, the skeleton of a cell), ultimately leading to cell death when that cell tries to divide. The relevant component of the cytoskeleton here is its microtubules.

"Micro" means "small" and "tubules" means "tubules." Think of them as straws made up of stacks on stacks of tiny little circles (i.e., cross-sections of that straw). These cross-sections can be added or removed, resulting in the overall microtubule structure growing or shrinking as needed to push on a cell (from the inside) or to shorten; these movements act in concert to allow the cell's shape to change as needed.

Nogales's work revealed the critical mechanics that are responsible for this interplay. When the microtubule straw is actively growing (as shown in the video below by the leading cap in that disgusting color of red), the microtubule is under a great amount of tension that would result in the structure breaking apart, but that leading cap holds things together in defiance of that tension. When a microtubule stops growing, that tension is no longer restrained and, if you remember those stacks on stacks of cross-sections, they start to fall off.

So, just how does taxol come into play? It inserts itself into the microtubule structure and relieves the tension, thus removing the driving force that usually breaks apart the microtubule. This impedes the normal function of the whole microtubule system, ultimately inhibiting cell division and resulting in cell death.

Currently, taxol attacks cells indiscriminately of whether or not they are healthy of cancerous. The catch is that since cancer cells divide uncontrollably and much more frequently than a healthy cell, taxol treatment ends up killing more cancerous cells than the patient's good cells. The cytoskeleton of a healthy cell is different than that of a cancerous cell (like how Wolverine's skeleton is different than that of a normal human [yay for topical references and Hollywood actors who are almost as handsome as me!]). Ideally, a version of taxol could be optimized that targets cancer cells exclusively based on these differences. Nogales's work is the first step in accomplishing this goal.

Marriage counseling

Speaking of timely references, Pat Benatar once told me that love is a battlefield. That's just about all I know on the subject because I'm too ugly for love.

But if it is indeed a battlefield, then how are peace treaties written? Professor Robert Levenson and his students (including half-Furdie Lian Bloch) studied and interviewed several couples and how they handled disputes.

Results show that the link between the wives' ability to control emotions and higher marital satisfaction was most evident when women used "constructive communication" to temper disagreements.

"When wives discuss problems and suggest solutions, it helps couples deal with conflicts," said UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study. "Ironically, this may not work so well for husbands, [whom] wives often criticize for leaping into problem-solving mode too quickly."

Now, I wouldn't buy into this study too heavily just yet. They studied two groups of either 80 or 156 couples and the latter were all located in the Bay Area, so there's no telling how that may skew the results.

Do your experiences support Levenson's research?