Watch Out, Cancer Cells: the Research is Coming!

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Nina Silver

Junior Nina Silver undergoing research on pancreatic cancer cells, for which she received a grant from The Drinko Center.

Junior biology major Nina Silver first wanted to pursue a STEM degree to eventually go to med school to become a psychiatrist. Prior to undergoing psychiatry, though, Silver is utilizing her time at Mother Fair to research more efficient treatments for cancer.

Cells are typically self-aware. If they are working less efficiently than they should be – in other words, if they are stressed – cells will kill themselves. This form of cell-suicide is known as apoptosis.

Apoptosis occurs when proteins in cells are transported by other proteins out of the cellular nucleus and into cytoplasm, Silver explained. Pancreatic cancer creates a certain type of protein in cells called Ran protein. Ran protein halts the transportation of harmful proteins out of cells’ nuclei. When Ran protein is present within a cell, too many proteins are transported into the cell and too few are transported out of the cell. This results in the cell not being able to apoptosis to rid itself of the cancerous Ran protein.

Silver is experimenting to find a more effective means of treatment for pancreatic cancer. She is working with the drugs five-fluorouracil and Gemcitamine to determine whether a combination of the two drugs would result in a more effective fight against pancreatic cancer as opposed to either five-fluorouracil or Gemcitamine used on their own as well as opposed to no treatment at all.

Gemcitamine is the primary drug doctors use when trying to treat pancreatic cancer. It kills cells in which the Ran protein has halted protein transportation into and out of the cellular nucleus. While currently the most effective at ridding bodies of cancerous cells, Gemcitamine is not an altogether effective drug because pancreatic cancer has developed to build resistance to the drug.

Five-fluorouracil is a secondary drug used to treat pancreatic cancer. Its use has proven not as effective as Gemcitamine and is often used in conjunction with other drugs.

“Two treatments used together can function differently together than they would separately,” Silver said.

SIlver’s hypothesis in undergoing research of pancreatic cancer cells is that the combination treatment of Gemcitamine and five-fluorouracil will cause less nuclear (and more cytoplasmic) amounts of Ran protein. Essentially, Silver is conducting experiments to determine a method of eliminating cancer cells that is both effective and overcomes resistance to individual treatment methods.

Researching cancer cells is Silver’s Senior Capstone project. Biology professor Dr. Karen Resendes is advising Silver through the project.

Resendes has previously advised alumni Eve Terwilliger and Emily D’Amico. Terwilliger and D’Amico conducted research to find more effective means of treating cervical cancer using a process similar to that of Silver.

Silver began her research during the Fall 2019 semester. Resendes and other Capstone students helped Silver to begin her research process by training her to complete the methods of experimentation. Silver’s first experiments used HeLa cells, leftover cervical cancer cells from Terwilliger and D’Amico’s research.

Every type of cancer has distinct characteristics. There is not a uniform approach to researching or treating “cancer” as a generalized form. Rather, each type of cancer must be studied individually to find its unique form of effective treatment.

The output of Terwilliger and D’Amico’s research suggested that their experiment might be more successful if tested with Panc1, pancreatic cancer cells. Critics of Terwilliger and D’Amico’s conclusion asked why they didn’t test their methods on Panc1 cells. Therefore, Silver’s experiments seek to expand upon her predecessors’.

To make her research specific to pancreatic cancer, though, Silver had to purchase Panc1 cells. Cells for research come at a high price -- $375.00, to be exact. Silver’s research relies upon Panc1 cells. To bypass the immediate cost of her research, Silver applied for a grant from Westminster College’s Drinko Center for undergraduate research funding.

The Drinko Center funding application asked Silver to explain the importance of her project and what she would be using the money to purchase. Upon receiving the grant money at the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, Silver purchased the Panc1 cells she needed and shifted her research from emulating the prior tests of Terwilliger and D’Amico to testing specifically for pancreatic cancer.

In addition to publishing her research at the conclusion of her three-semester-long experiments, Silver said, “I also hope this research provides a base for other labs to continue off. [This] will ultimately help develop a treatment for pancreatic cancer that is reliable in its ability to fight that type of cancer, as there really is not one for pancreatic cancer yet.”

In accordance with her Drinko Center grant, Silver will present her findings thus far on how combination treatments affect Ran proteins in cancerous cells at Westminster’s annual Undergraduate Research and Arts Celebration (URAC) April 22.


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