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Undergraduate Students on the Hunt for Cancer Killing Molecules

By November 11, 2021No Comments

Years ago, a postdoc in the Ruohola-Baker Lab wrote a paper describing a biological mechanism in fruit flies that protects stem cells from apoptosis – in other words, that prevents cell death. The author suggested a systematic drug screen for molecules that might subvert this protective mechanism and induce cell death.

Such a drug would be a powerful tool in the fight against cancer. Scientists have long known that cancer stem cells exposed to chemicals and radiation are able to enter quiescence, a reversible state of dormancy. Later, the cancer stem cells reawaken and proliferate. Tumors return and the patient relapses.

At the time, Filippo Artoni was an undergraduate student researcher in the Ruohola-Baker Lab. Artoni designed the framework for the drug screen. Two other undergraduate students, Marcel Wu, and Joyce Lee, joined him in the search for a silver bullet capable of killing cancer stem cells. That work led to a paper in Nature Communications, authored by Yalan Xing.

That was 2015.

Undergraduates Join a Real Scientific Effort

It was around then that Debra del Castillo responded to an ad for undergraduate students to help with a drug screen. “I was going to back school,” says del Castillo, who earned a degree in electrical engineering before leaving the field for twenty years to raise children and care for ailing family members.

“When I joined the project, I learned the basics of a screen and immediately saw that what we were doing was a great opportunity for young people to be part of a real scientific investigation,” adds del Castillo. “I really think that should be a part of every undergraduate experience.”

In the end, del Castillo’s tenure as an official member of the lab was brief. She accepted a full-time position, which she still holds, as a Huntington Study Group Research Coordinator. Nonetheless, she remains connected to the Ruohola-Baker Lab as a volunteer.

Since playing a role in some of the initial drug screens, del Castillo has recruited more than 50 undergraduate students who have followed in her footsteps, each helping to move the research effort forward, while gaining valuable hands-on laboratory experience. Many would likely not have had access to the opportunity without del Castillo’s knack for finding talent, often in students from backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in biomedical research.

“Debra is an angel,” says Hannele Ruohola-Baker, PhD a Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM). “She works from the grassroots up. She supports science as a social endeavor. Part of that is providing opportunities for those who need them most.”