Dr. Mirvat El Sibai’s Study Discovers Exclusive Information on Cancer Metastasis

“For years we have thought of proteins as either inhibitors or activators of the cancer metastasis or the cell migration cycle. What we showed in my lab is that, as opposed to the cell cycle where upstream regulators are either negative or positive regulators, cell migration is a series of repetitive steps that require the same protein to be inactivated then activated for the cell to move forward,” states Dr. Mirvat El-Sibai, associate professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at the Lebanese American University, Beirut campus.

El-Sibai initiated her research at the Department of Natural Sciences at LAU in 2009. Her research revolves around cancer in general and cancer metastasis in particular; cancer metastasis is the spread of cancer from one part of the body to the other. It can happen either locally, by spreading into nearby tissues, or regionally into nearby organs.
Furthermore, El-Sibai established new techniques that were used for the first time at LAU including various state-of-the-art live microscopy techniques and single-cell assays to detect protein activation. She collaborates with several labs at LAU and other local and international institutions, including North Carolina Chapel Hill and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She also collaborated with several pathology labs in Lebanon to examine cancerous tissues from patients and build a cancer tissue bank.

Most importantly, the studies were capable of discovering, for the first time, that a tumor suppressor, antioncogene, can also be an oncogene- a gene that, when activated, transforms normal cells into tumor cells. This means that genes supposed to suppress cancer can also convert into cancerous ones themselves. El-Sibai and her mentees believe that in halting the cancer cells’ metastasis, its malignancy will come to an end.

In that regard, El-Sibai expresses her satisfaction with mentoring around 30 graduate students at LAU, of which 4 are PhD students. El-Sibai and her mentees “have published a cohesive body of work in peer-reviewed international journals,” which opened the door for them to “be placed in reputable PhD programs with full scholarships in the US and in Europe, one of which is at Albert Einstein College of Medicine where I did my PhD studies and a couple of the students joined the lab of Dr. Jonathan Backer who was my PhD advisor” states El-Sibai.

One of El-Sibai’s former students is Samer Hanna, currently a PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine where he is working in Dr. Dianne Cox’s lab. Hanna was recently chosen by Einstein as the only student to apply for a very prestigious NIH transitional fellowship and had won it.  
Hanna’s research at El-Sibai’s lab was mainly about the breast cancer motility and invasion. “I had the opportunity to present my work at local meetings and become first author and co-author on several peer-reviewed publications,” says Hanna.

Hanna attributes his development of laboratory skills to El-Sibai’s fruitful and professional guidance. This is why he concludes with a remarkable comment she once said: “…collaborations are the way for successful progress in research,” to express “the importance of promoting research within the community as well as creating a niche to establish new collaborations within the scientific community.”

To sum up, “understanding how cancer cells spread would be the first step” towards reaching the utmost goal of prohibiting this spread. “Accordingly, my lab also focuses on a therapeutic approach and more interestingly on selective targeting of cancer cells,” asserts El-Sibai.