Our Stories: Xiaoqi Liu
Xiaoqi Liu, Ph.D.
Department of Biochemistry
Peering into the microscope, Xiaoqi Liu is drawn into the rhythmic motions of the cells — how they grow, how they divide, how their signal pathways are modified by the presence of something new.
But gazing out the windows of the Hansen Life Sciences Research building, he is also drawn to the people passing by. “You try to do something good for society,” says Liu, an associate professor of biochemistry. “Cancer biology is one way.”
Liu is setting his sights on prostate cancer, the most common cancer among men in the United States, next to skin cancer. For several years now, his laboratory has focused on the function of a gene called Polo-like kinase (Plk1), which regulates cell cycles but can also mutate and cause cancer.
Liu and his team have discovered that later-stage prostate cancer cells are missing Pten, a tumor-suppressor gene. When Pten is diminished, the cells become stressed. To compensate, they increase production of Plk1, which causes rapid cell division.
This particular type of later-stage prostate cancer is troublesome because the cells don’t respond to drugs aimed at stopping cell division and metastatic cancers spread to other areas. When Pten is missing, Liu says, those drugs actually increase the production of more Plk1. This means that Plk1 inhibitors could be good drugs for treatment of the disease.
Now, Liu is collaborating with other researchers on campus to test potential Plk1 inhibitors. That, he says, requires an essential understanding of the gene’s regulation and function, particularly in the context of the cancer cell.
Using a combination of biochemistry, cell biology and mouse genetics, Liu’s lab is investigating how cells respond when compounds that inhibit Plk1 are introduced. Ultimately, findings could lead to more promising therapies for the difficult-to-treat later stages of prostate cancer.
“As a basic cell biologist, I don’t develop new compounds by myself. But I can use my expertise to understand how cells modify or their signals change in response to different drugs,” he says. “The cancer center has created an ideal environment for me to learn a lot from my colleagues and for me to contribute to their work.”