UH Hilo biochemist Li Tao finds new cellular clue for cancer treatment

Associate Professor of Biology Li Tao and postdoc Brandt Warecki discover a motor complex implicated in cell division that has great promise for anti-cancer drug designs.

Brandt Warecki and Li Tao in lab.
UH Hilo biologist Li Tao (at right) and postdoc Brandt Warecki in the lab. In their research into cell division, the two investigators have discovered another clue in the quest to find a cure for cancer. The findings have just been published in the journal Science Signaling. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright.

Science Signaling coverm 4 July 2023, AAAS. Image of sell division.
Online cover of Science Signaling, July, 2023. From the cover’s description: “This week, Warecki and Tao show evidence for a long-standing theory of RhoGEF transport during cell division to promote strictly localized plasma membrane furrowing and cytokinesis. The image is a fluorescence micrograph of dividing cells in cytokinesis, featuring deep furrows (light blue). Credit: Paul Andrews, University of Dundee/Science Source”

A biologist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, who is doing research into the mechanisms of cell division to find clues for cancer treatment, has just published his most recent findings in the journal Science Signaling (July 4, 2023).

Associate Professor of Biology Li Tao is a biochemist and cell biologist with expertise in using a combination of in vitro biochemistry and in vivo cell biology to understand the regulation of cell division, thus providing insights into the fundamental mechanism to control the growth of cancer cells.

“Cell division is of tremendous interest to the biomedical research community due to its connection to various human diseases, including cancer,” explains Tao. “Understanding the regulation of cell division is crucial to combating cancer. Cytokinesis, as the last stage of cell division, represents the final opportunity to control this process.”

The recently published findings from Tao’s lab highlight that centralspindlin, a motor complex implicated in cell division, plays a pivotal role in dictating cytokinesis by transporting essential components required to initiate this process.

“This discovery positions centralspindlin as an ideal target for anti-cancer drug designs,” says Tao.

The study was conducted primarily by Tao and Brandt Warecki, who holds a joint postdoctoral position between UH Hilo and University of California, Santa Cruz. Warecki is lead author of the study; Tao serves as corresponding author.

Brandt Warecki with lab equipment.
Postdoctoral researcher Brandt Warecki at work in the lab. (Courtesy photo)

Finding clues for cancer treatment

Tao says any mistakes that escape from cytokinesis will cause severe human diseases including cancer. Several years ago, he discovered that a key motor protein for cytokinesis, kinesin-6, is regulated by Rho-family protein RacGAP. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications (April 19, 2016) with Tao as both lead author and corresponding author.

Petri dish with yellow liquid covered in black specs.
In a 2016 study, Li Tao’s research team used molecular cloning to engineer new kinesin constructs. (Claudia Hagan/UH Hilo Stories)

In that study, Tao challenged a widely accepted concept in the field: that all kinesins can move along microtubules by themselves. “However,” he says, “we found that kinesin-6 alone is not active, meaning it cannot move on microtubules. Kinesin-6 has to bind to another protein RacGAP to activate its function. This finding provides a novel mechanism on the regulation of cytokinesis.” After this finding, Tao and his research team continued their study of kinesin-6 and other motor proteins.

Tao says his research into the mechanisms of cell division will provide clues for cancer treatment.

“Abnormal cell division causes cancer,” he explains. “Understanding the mechanism of cell division and its control has thus become a key to find cures for cancer.” This is why his studies are directly related to the regulation of cell division. His ultimate goal is to have a greater understanding of how mitotic motors regulate cell division, which will help find an effective way to cure cancer.

Tao believes the success of this mission depends on collaboration among peers.

“In my opinion, solving problems on cell division should be teamwork with experts from various fields,” he says.

Tao received his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California at Davis, and his master of science in physiology from Nanjing University. He arrived at UH Hilo’s Department of Biology in 2014.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.