We all have cancer.

Or, more accurately, we all have cancer cells within our bodies — abnormal cells that coexist with our healthy ones, kept at bay by our immune systems. The problem starts when these cells begin rapidly multiplying and forming tumors that develop their own vascular systems. If not successfully removed by surgery or countered by chemicals or radiation, it eventually kills the host.

No one really knows how that process of metabolism begins. But Dr. Wei Jia, co-director of the UNCG Center for Translational Biomedical Research, is working on it.

“Everybody has pre-cancerous cells,” he says. “A healthy immune system is able to destroy these cells so that they cannot duplicate and grow to form a tumor. Somewhere there is a signal out there, probably environmental or mental, like stress. Those cells will start to multiply.”

The university recruited Jia from his native China based on his work identifying bioactive ingredients from natural foods and plants as well as his background in traditional Chinese medicine. Now, with his team at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis, he’s using metabolomics — the study of metabolism and metabolites — to understand the way cancer works.

It takes steps to develop cancer — it doesn’t happen overnight. If we catch it early, we can increase the survival rate and quality of life.

Genetics factor into the cancer equation. If a parent or sibling has had cancer, then your likelihood of developing the same type of cancer is increased. But genetics, he says, is just a small part of the story.

“Genetics only tells a possibility,” Jia says. “We do see genetic defects (in subjects), but that person may never develop cancer. We figure, whatever your situation, genetic or environmental — you drink too much or you keep eating something toxic — this is going to have an impact on your metabolism and the regulating genes. And we do see unique metabolic defects that are induced by environmental toxins and trigger the transformation from normal cells to cancer cells. In other words, cancer can be regarded as a metabolic disease.”

Jia and his team currently focus on breast cancer and colorectal cancer and, to a lesser extent, leukemia and oral cancers. They obtain samples — blood, urine and tissue — from patients at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles, the MD Anderson Cancer Center and several major hospitals in Shanghai, China. Using mass spectrometry and chromatography to break the samples into particles, they can identify hundreds of metabolites from a single drop of blood. Biomarkers show where metabolism differs in cancer patients.

“We basically compare the metabolites of a healthy subject and a cancer subject and identify the weird ones,” Jia says.

It’s a different approach. Jia calls it “top down.”

“In the medical field, when they work on cancer, they start with the cells of animals,” he says. “But most of the time the results do not translate to humans.”

Jia and his team start with the human first.

“To study a human disease, you have to start with the human body. In traditional Chinese medicine, there’s never a lab animal. You never hear of a traditional Chinese doctor with 200 mice.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations