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UH-Hilo Professor Seeks Cancer Insight

May 5, 2016, 3:22 PM HST
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Li Tao. Photo by Claudia Hagan.

Li Tao. Photo by Claudia Hagan.

Recent work conducted by Li Tao, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, was published in Nature Communication last month.

The research seeks to understand the mechanism of cell division that will provide clues for cancer treatment.

Tao is a biochemist and cell biologist whose expertise is in combining in vitro biochemistry and in vivo cell biology to understand the regulation of cell division. The research provides insights into the fundamental mechanism to control the growth of cancer cells.

“Understanding the mechanism of cell division and its control is the key to find cures for cancer,” said Tao. “Cells use kinesins, a subfamily of mitotic motors, to drive cell division. My research is primarily centered on various kinesins and explores how these motors regulate cell division. By developing conditions to stably express full-length kinesin motor proteins, we explore the mechanisms driving the formation and functioning of the mitotic spindle.”

Cytokinesis is the final stage of cell division. Tao said that it is also the last chance for the cell to perform “quality control.”


Any mistakes that escape from cytokinesis will cause severe human diseases, including cancer. Recently, Tao found that a key motor protein for cytokinesis, kinesin-6, is regulated by Rho-family protein RacGAP.


“Originally, the widely accepted concept in the field is that all kinesins can move along microtubules by themselves,” he says. “However, 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.”

Tao and his research team are continuing their study on kinesin-6 and other motor proteins.

“We want to perform structural analysis on these kinesins and identify the potential molecular targets for anti-cancer drugs,” said Tao.


Tao’s ultimate goal is to have a greater understanding of how mitotic motors regulate cell division, and to find an effective way to cure cancer.

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