Welcome to the Emil Lou Lab at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Our main research interest involves investigating tumor heterogeneity and intercellular communication in a spectrum of invasive and aggressive solid tumor malignancies. Projects in our lab focus on investigating the biology of cancer cells as they relate to cancer cell invasion, progression, tumor recurrence, and chemotherapy resistance. We invite you to learn more about our work and our research team.
Emil Lou, MD, PhD, FACP is a physician-scientist with a strong interest and a translational approach to the investigation of solid tumor malignancies at the cellular and molecular level. As a fellowship-trained and practicing medical oncologist and neuro-oncologist, he has a strong interest in a ‘bedside-to-bench-and-back’ approach to translational oncology and laboratory research. At the national level, he has served on the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Scientific Committee for GI Cancers (2012-15), Continuing Education Committee for the North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society (2020-present). He has served as an expert reviewer for grant proposals and manuscripts focused on tumor biology and clinical cancer research, and is a Deputy Editor for the journal Molecular Therapy Oncolytics. Identifying pertinent clinical problems in oncology that can be investigated in the laboratory setting is a high priority for his research program and collaborative efforts.
Intercellular Communication in Cancer
The Lou lab primarily focuses its work on studying intercellular communication via cellular extensions called tunneling nanotubes (TnTs, or TNTs, for short). These structures are long, thin, spontaneously forming actin-based cellular extensions that occur in a variety of cell types including inflammatory cells (e.g. B cells, macrophages), neurons, and more recently being examined in malignant cells. When examined in vitro, TnTs are differentiated from other actin-based structures such as filopodia, invadopodia, and lamellopodia by their characteristic non-adherence to the substratum. Furthermore, once they attach to nearby or distant cells in culture, they form direct connections that serve as conduits for intercellular transport of a variety of cellular cargo and contents, including but not limited to lipophilic vesicles, Golgi vesicles, and even mitochondria. To date, there have been relatively few studies of TnTs in cancer, particularly in primary cancer cells or tumors. Much remains unknown about these structures, including their in vivo relevance. Our team was the first to demonstrate, using confocal microscopy, presence of nanotubes in intact malignant tumors. To date, we have demonstrated nanotubes in several invasive malignancies such as mesothelioma and lung adenocarcinoma from surgically resected tumors from human patients [Lou et al., PLoS ONE, 2012], and more recently in orthotopic animal models including osteosarcoma. Our collaborative team believes that TnTs are an underexplored yet potentially important mode of intercellular communication in cancer and play a heretofore unassessed role in tumor-stromal cross-talk in the complex and heterogeneous tumor microenvironment. For confocal and other microscopy videos of this work, click here.
Ongoing projects on TnTs in our lab include the following:
- Investigation of the underlying function of TnTs and relevance to invasive cancers. We are actively investigating whether TnTs serve as a selective and unique conduit for cellular cargo that drive vital cellular processes, including carcinogenesis and metastasis.
- Investigation of the mechanisms of TnT formation and maintenance in cancer.
- Identifying differences in TnT formation in malignant vs. precursor or stromal cells, and identification of cellular biomarkers that contribute to selectivity of TnT formation.
- Tumor exosomes induce tunneling nanotubes in lipid raft-enriched regions of human mesothelioma cells (Publication Link)
- Tumor-stromal cross talk: direct cell-to-cell transfer of oncogenic microRNAs via tunneling nanotubes (Publication Link)
- A new paradigm for studying intercellular communication and therapeutics in cancer (Publication Link)
Translational Research Program
Novel biomarkers of chemoresistance in ovarian cancer:
An additional project in our lab involves a biomarker-based clinical trial in collaboration with the UMN Gynecologic Oncology group, with the purpose of identifying novel biomarkers of chemoresistant ovarian cancers. We enrolled patients and collected tumor specimens at the time of debulking surgery, as well as serum samples at the time of diagnosis and longitudinally throughout their care, with the purpose of correlating potential biomarkers that may predict which patients harbor tumors most susceptible to developing resistance to platinum-based chemotherapy, a major obstacle to treatment of these patients. We isolated circulating tumor cells (CTCs) to and correlated these findings to platinum-resistance as well. Results to date have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including in JAMA Oncology in 2019, when we reported a correlation between Tumor-Stroma Proportion and Platinum Chemotherapy Resistance in Ovarian Cancer. This work was sponsored by the KL2 Scholars Career Development Program, Clinical and Translational Science Institute, University of Minnesota.
- Emil Lou et al., Tumor-Stroma Proportion as a Predictive Biomarker of Resistance to Platinum-Based Chemotherapy in Patients With Ovarian Cancer
- Analysis of Differentially Expressed MicroRNAs and Circulating Tumor Cells as Predictive Biomarkers of Platinum Chemoresistance in Primary Ovarian Carcinomas: A Prospective Study
- Assessment of Circulating Tumor Cells as a Predictive Biomarker of Histology in Women With Suspected Ovarian Cancer
The Lou Lab is a cancer research team that believes strongly in supporting community initiatives for cancer awareness, advocacy, education, and engagement of the cancer community both locally and nationally.
Dr. Lou was a panelist on an AACR-sponsored panel at The Atlantic’s People v Cancer event, November 12, 2019. Watch the panel.
AACR Scientist <--> Survivor Program
- Dr. Lou has served as a Scientist Mentor for this Program at the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research)
Annual Meetings in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
- Click here to read an interview with Dr. Lou and Cancer Today's full coverage of the Scientist-Survivor Program at the annual meeting.
- Invited guest on Breast Cancer Social Media (#bcsm) blog for updates from #AACR15
Community Outreach and Presentations
- Presentation on “Recent Advances in Cancer Research” at the Roseville Rotary Club’s Rotary Health Day. April 21, 2014.
- Grant reviewer for community group applications to the UMN CTSI Office of Community Engagement for Health (OCEH).
- Dr. Lou participated in the AACR/ABC News Live Stream Chat on “Breakthroughs in Cancer Research” from the 2015 Annual Meeting.
Read Article | Watch Video
- Article on Dr. Lou’s panel discussion at the Professional Advancement Session on Social Media for Scientists at the 2015 AACR Annual Meeting. Read Article.
Tips to be a Great Patient Advocate
Support our Work
Research is critical to advancing toward a cure for cancer.
Our promising work is only made possible by funds from granting agencies, foundations, and even individuals who share our vision that understanding cancer biology will lead to better and more effective treatment approaches to cancer.
Please consider joining our research team by donating funds to support our work – no donation is too small, and every dollar counts. Please click here for more information.
We are grateful to funding agencies that support our work, including the following.
- AACR-Novocure Tumor-Treating Fields Research Grant, 2019-21
- Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, 2019-20
- Minnesota Masonic Charities
- KL2 Scholars Career Development Program (2013-16), Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), University of Minnesota
- Mezin-Koats Colon Cancer Research Award
- Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund
- The Litman Family Fund for Cancer Research
- National Pancreas Foundation, 2013 Research Grant (provided in partnership with the National Pancreas Foundation, several NPF Chapters and the Horvitz/Lebovitz Research Fund
- American Cancer Society, Institutional Research Grant, University of Minnesota, 2012-13
- Powell Center for Women’s Health, Interdisciplinary Seed Grant, University of Minnesota, 2013-14
- Minnesota Medical Foundation, Research Grant, 2012-14
- Karen Wyckoff Rein in Sarcoma Foundation, Seed Grant, 2012-13
- Baker Street Foundation, 2008-10
Current Lab Members
- Kate Ladner, PhD
- Phillip Wong, MS
Current Undergraduate Students
- Akshat Sarkari
- Sophie Korenfeld
Former Lab Members
- Snider Desir, PhD
- Venugopal Thayanithy, PhD
- Elizabeth Dickson, MD