With funds from a Florida Hospital grant, Dr. Sue Baker and her health and biomedical sciences students at Adventist University are researching a cure for cancer. Their study is based on the hypothesis that a recently discovered protein called TWEAK enables cancer tumors to grow blood vessels, and that if blocked, cancer cells could potentially die.
“Working on the project is a thrilling experience because it’s basically a big puzzle,” says Weston Snell, junior biomedical sciences major. “You never know what you’re going to find when you open up the incubator.”
For the past seven months, Baker has focused on teaching students how to grow cells, perform experiments, and prepare slides for microscopic analysis.
“We have to watch the cells so carefully that we’ve taken to affectionately calling them our babies,” Snell says. “If someone sees your cells aren’t doing well, they’ll say, ‘Hey, your babies are dying.’”
How It All Works
In order to survive, tumors send messages to healthy blood vessels asking for nutrient hook-ups. Blood vessels respond by forming a vast network that feeds and grows tumors. If their experiments reveal TWEAK is the message-bearer, students will move into a second level of research, exploring ways to starve cancer by intercepting these messages.
“Having this opportunity to understand at the cellular level exactly how the body responds to medications is going to give our students a huge advantage when they go on to practice medicine,” Baker says.
It also sharpens their critical thinking by requiring them to constantly evaluate data, modify procedures, and make decisions based on unexpected results.
“Suddenly I think like a scientist,” says Lou Santiago, junior biomedical sciences major. “I’m more analytical and detail-oriented than I’ve ever been before.”
Though the grant ends in five months, the project will continue.
“Research is never finished,” Baker says. “It’s just due.”
By Rainey Park