Feb. 26, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Chemistry majors hit big time with cancer research
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University chemistry majors are contributing to one of science's most important endeavors - the effort to conquer cancer. Students are researching the influence of various chemicals and proteins on cancer cells, hoping to shed light on whether chemicals could be used to slow or prevent the growth of cancer cells.
"What I am doing is treating cells with different chemicals to see what causes cell death," said Katelyn Smiley, chemistry major from Ellwood City. "Hopefully we'll identify a chemical that can be used one day to kill cancer cells or prevent them from growing."
Cancer occurs whenever cells in the body reproduce at unacceptable rates. "Cells continue to grow and grow and reproduce. That's when you get tumors," Smiley said. "We're hoping to slow the production of cells."
According to the American Cancer Society, 1.4 million people were diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. in 2009, with 74,000 cases in Pennsylvania. Nationally, 62,000 of the cases are expected to be fatal. Common forms of cancer include breast, lung and prostate cancer.
Don Catena, spokesman for the American Cancer Society, said it is rare for undergraduate students to be involved in cancer research.
"It is exciting that Slippery Rock University students are taking the initiative on research of such importance to everyone," he said. "The American Cancer Society is always hoping that younger people, especially college students, will get involved in studies that we might find valuable in the future for a cure of cancer." [R1]
The student researchers are Smiley and chemistry majors Christine Lundblad, of Pittsburgh, Cheri Dover of Bowie, Md. and Brandon Scott of New Castle. They are working with Paul Birckbichler and Donald Zapien, associate professors of chemistry, using new laboratories in SRU's Advanced Technology and Science Hall.
Students are growing cancer cells, harvesting them and treating them with chemicals, including a vitamin A derivative called retinoic acid. They also use retinoic acid analogs where a nitrogen, sulfur or oxygen atom has been inserted into the cell, said Birckbichler.
"They're taking the cells after they've been treated for a period of time and processing them and looking at the cells," he said. "It's basic research, but that's how any cure is ultimately found. It comes from basic research results."
He said students always use positive, negative and control chemicals. The work enhances their understanding of chemical principles, the scientific method and helps them become independent problem solvers, he said.
"From my perspective, I want to give students the opportunity to get some lab experience and techniques that they don't get exposed to so much in their regular laboratory work," he said.
Birckbichler said he expects the students to present their research at national and regional conferences and that the work will help them get admitted top graduate schools.
Smiley said her research experience helped her connect with SRU.
"It's really scary to try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life when you're 18 years old," she said. "I liked chemistry in high school, so I decided to give it a try. I find it to be really interested. You can help so many people; you could change someone's life, because we all know someone who has died of cancer."
Scott, who specializes in forensic chemistry, said the research has become special to him. "It's basically become my life. I spend close to 10 to 12 hours a day in the lab," he said.
He is studying the chemistry of the protein ferritin, which is found in almost all living organisms. Ferritin stores iron and releases it in a controlled fashion. In humans, it acts as a buffer against iron deficiency and iron overload.
Scott said he is studying mutations of ferritin at the cell level for possible connections between iron amounts and cancer, using an in vitro process to introduce purified ferritin into cells.
"Some of the things that occur amaze me," he said. "The research brings everything together that we learn in class."
Lundblad, Scott's lab partner, said she has done five mutations with cells in an attempt to produce ferritin. "We are studying the chemistry of ferritin with the intention of possibly finding out information that could potentially help people with diseases," she said.
Zapien said the study of ferritin is important. When it behaves abnormally, ferritin gives rise to a number of diseases.
"Students are using recombinant DNA technology to purposely induce mutations in the ferritin gene," he said. "This gene is inserted into bacteria so that the bacteria can synthesize the desired ferritin mutant. The data tells them the influence of the mutation of ferritin's ability to take up iron or to release iron."
While SRU is not a tier 1 research institution like the University of Pittsburgh, Lundblad said the equipment in ATS is phenomenal and that she appreciates the opportunities the chemistry department has provided. The laboratories were designed with teaching in mind, giving students hands-on experience with the latest techniques in the chemical world.
"I am thankful to have such a great facility," she said. "We wouldn't be able to do our projects without the technology we have."
Dover said she is just starting her research by growing cells and plans to study the role of transglutaminase enzymes in cell production. She is considering a career in medicine or research, saying, "I like doing this a lot and hope to help people by doing research," said.
Birckbichler, a researcher for 30 years, said cancer cells have lower amounts of the transglutaminase enzyme. His students' work could help scientists understand more about the relationship between the enzyme and cancer.
"We have also found that cells that are rapidly growing don't have this enzyme. But the normal cells that know enough to stop growing when they reach a certain density, they had it," he said.
SRU's Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity is April 8-9.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.