Hollings researcher lands award, tracks epithelial failure and connection to cancer

October 20, 2022
portrait of a man standing in front of a whiteboard with writing on it
Dr. Antonis Kourtidis works with multiple departments across campus to facilitate his research. Photo by Clif Rhodes

When Stephen Duncan, Ph.D., arrived at MUSC as chairman of the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology in 2015, one of his first moves was to recruit Antonis Kourtidis, Ph.D.

“He’s so extraordinarily talented,” Duncan said. And as a bonus: “He’s just an incredibly nice person.” So Duncan was pleased that Kourtidis was recently recognized with the MUSC Developing Scholar award, an annual award that considers researchers from all six colleges at MUSC.

Kourtidis, a member of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and the MUSC Digestive Disease Research Center, investigates colon cancer, although his pioneering work could have implications for many cancers beyond colon cancer.

His lab looks at what’s happening at the cell level in the epithelium, a tissue found throughout the body that lines organs, including the intestines, as well as the outside of the body. It forms a protective barrier to entry or exit, but that barrier starts to break down in cancer.

“The very important complex that does this is called the adherens junction. This is responsible for tethering cells together and sealing the gaps between them, in essence, so that the epithelium is sealed. But this is disrupted in cancer, and this is almost a universal phenomenon in cancer,” Kourtidis explained.

“What we have found is, in addition to that structural role of the adherens junction, is that they also regulate cell behavior, through small molecules called microRNAs,” he said. “The junctions are really the hub, so they recruit all these components regulating microRNAs to suppress expression of oncogenes.”

Oncogenes are mutated genes that can cause cancer by allowing cells to multiply out of control. When things go awry with the normal suppression of oncogenes, then the cells lose contact with each other and become more mobile.

“They start proliferating more, moving more, and they reshape their environment. They can reshape the extracellular environment in a way that favors cell migration and cell metastasis, which is one of the features of cancer,” Kourtidis said.

This mechanism, regulated by adherens junctions, appears to be strictly one of epithelial cancers.

“We don't have any evidence that this happens in hematologic cancers. We don't really think that happens in cancers of the mesenchymal tissue. We really think this is an epithelial phenomenon,” he said.

That means targeting this process could potentially affect a lot of patients: 80% to 90% of cancers start in epithelial tissue. Duncan noted that this work has been recognized by peers all over the world. It’s one reason why Duncan and a group of colleagues, including Paula Traktman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Graduate Studies; Don Rockey, M.D., director and principal investigator of the Digestive Disease Research Core Center; Andy Wessels, Ph.D., vice chairman of the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology; and Perry Halushka, M.D., Ph.D., dean emeritus of the College of Graduate Studies; nominated Kourtidis for the MUSC Developing Scholar award this year.

a man stands on stage holding a large framed certificated flanked by a man and a woman with his photo displayed on the large screen behind them 
Dr. Antonis Kourtidis with Dr. Lisa Saladin, provost, and Dr. David Cole, president of MUSC. Photo by Jonathan Coultas

The award was given to Kourtidis during this year’s faculty convocation.

“I was really happy and humbled,” Kourtidis said. There are many great investigators across MUSC who could have been honored, he said.

Duncan noted that not only is Kourtidis a gifted investigator, but he’s also a collaborative member of the MUSC community. He runs a seminar series that is a collaboration between the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology and the Digestive Disease Research Center. He’s working with Hollings researcher Marvella Ford, Ph.D., co-director of the South Carolina Cancer Disparities Research Center (SC CADRE), and epidemiologist Kristin Wallace, Ph.D., to involve some of his research in the proposal for renewal of SC CADRE. He’ll be looking into disparities in colon cancer across the state and what effect diet might have. And he mentors students in his lab.

“His students tend to really enjoy working with him,” Duncan said. “He pushes them hard and has high expectations. But he also really rewards them, so it’s a very popular lab to be part of.”

Kourtidis works collaboratively with people across campus, a skill that is increasingly valuable in a world where interdisciplinary research is becoming more important.

“There are no boundaries – he doesn't work in a silo,” Duncan said. “He'll collaborate with anybody, regardless of the department or clinical science versus basic science.”