Cancer Research Program aims to find new treatments
The new kid on the block means business. The FGCU Cancer Research Program, established as an official student organization in January, might be in its infancy age-wise, but in terms of skill and commitment, its members are wise beyond their years.
It began when Jordan Shedrow (’17, biology) approached Lyndsay Rhodes, assistant professor of biology, with the idea of creating a cancer research program to unite all cancer research going on at FGCU. Working with Sara Lohbauer, (’17, biology) their proposal was incorporated into a civic engagement course as well as a senior capstone class. Students from multiple disciplines showed interest. Shedrow became the club’s first president; Lohbauer, vice president. Club members who elect to conduct research work under the supervision of a faculty mentor and earn credits based on the number of lab hours logged.
The university offered lab space in the Emerging Technologies Institute (ETI) with the stipulation that the club furnish the space. A group of dedicated students organized a fundraiser in April to help purchase incubators, culture hoods, glassware and more. As a result of money raised and additional contributions, the Cancer Research Program planned to move into its new, fully furnished lab space in the ETI this fall.
Rhodes, whose breast cancer research is well under way at the university, welcomed the opportunity to be the club’s advisor and mentor. “I sit back when I can and help when I can. This truly is a student-led organization,” she said. “The club has grown way beyond my expectations in such a short amount of time.”
Nicole Mamprejew, a senior majoring in biology and psychology, is the club’s current president. She reports that more than 50 FGCU students participate. “I’m responsible for overseeing educational outreach and advocacy, and ensuring we have plenty of opportunities for our diverse membership, which includes not only biology and chemistry majors, but also engineering, communication, marketing and exercise science majors.”
And that’s the magic of the club. Of course, cancer research is key, but cancer research does not survive on lab work alone. That’s where the multidisciplinary feature of club membership comes in.
“Cancer research has many aspects,” said Mamprejew. “There’s outreach to the community – the educational aspect. Each of these disciplines, each member, has something to offer.”
Club vice president, Xylia Horgan, a senior biology major, and her lab partner Hannah Tatum, also a senior biology major, conduct breast cancer research under the supervision of faculty mentor Rhodes.
Horgan and Tatum are testing stilbenes, natural compounds found in many plants. Resveratrol is a stilbene found in wine, and is thought to improve heart health. Perhaps they could be beneficial in treating cancer, too.
“Stilbenes are natural compounds found in many plants,” Horgan said. “We are using stilbenes in our research to test our theory that they may be used as future cancer treatments.
“Basically, we’re testing 30 natural compounds on cancer cells we’ve grown in the lab. We’re looking for anti-cancerous effects. When we treat the cancer cells with each compound, we hypothesize that the cancer cells will die. This inhibition would suggest the compound’s potential use as a breast cancer treatment, kind of like a chemotherapy.”
All 30 stilbene compounds have been screened in the FGCU lab. “Results in initial screenings have shown some significant inhibition of cellular growth,” said Horgan. “We are now testing those stilbenes in various dosages to determine the extent of the compounds’ inhibition on the cancer cells.”
Rhodes added, “We’re also working on establishing collaborations with community partners in oncology and cancer research fields. Such partnerships would build on the research being conducted at FGCU and allow students advanced experience in the field.”
It is not within the scope of this article to detail the diverse research projects conducted by students in the Cancer Research Program. However, a glimpse into the breadth of work undertaken is worth noting. Mamprejew, for example, is focused on “how preservatives, like parabens in our food, affect our endocrine system, which produces hormones. Ultimately,” she said, “we will find out in which aspect preservatives disrupt the endocrine system in a way that promotes cancer.”
Rhodes’ research primarily focuses on breast cancer, attempting to pinpoint the underlying mechanisms driving cancer growth and progression to ultimately identifying targets for new drug development. Her current research projects include evaluating natural and synthetic stilbene compounds for anticancer effects. Horgan and Tatum assist her in her research.
Kerry Lee, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Ju Chou, associate professor of chemistry and physics, collaborate with Rhodes. They conduct research utilizing noble metal nanoparticles; students are now testing their application in cancer. Referencing her breast cancer research, Rhodes said, “We’re also working with Daniel Paull, assistant professor of chemistry. He and his students take the compounds we find to be active and make stilbene derivatives with the hopes of making the compounds more effective.”
This semester, as part of FGCU’s Foundation of Civic Engagement course, Horgan and Mamprejew are developing a cancer awareness curriculum for an after-school program for middle and high school students.
“The way I see it,” said Mamprejew, “the job of a scientist is to demystify science, and the FGCU Cancer Research Program is approaching that in a multifaceted way. Our upcoming education project with a planned lecture series open to the public plus our efforts to educate our own members about cancer will go a long way to doing this.”
“We want to empower people with knowledge about cancer,” said Horgan. “I think what makes our program special is that we’re trying to be what our local community needs. We’re investigating local cancer education at all levels and stepping up to create a better-informed and more equipped community in Southwest Florida to take on cancer.”