Digging into Cancer Research

June 11, 2019

Philip Le ’22

Students collaborate with a faculty mentor on health-related science.

Driven by her grandmother’s personal experience with breast cancer, Dishti Goyal ’21 became intrigued by this field of research. Under the supervision of Charvann Bailey, assistant professor of biology, Goyal spent three semesters collaborating with Kevin Gubner ’20. Their work has included a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) and an impressive performance at the Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity Symposium 2019.

A Research Topic with Room for Discovery

The two decided to focus specifically on triple-negative breast cancer because its room for research is plentiful, says Gubner.

“It is highly difficult to treat, which is due to its lack of important cell receptors like HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), ER (estrogen receptor), and PR (progesterone receptor),” Goyal explains. “Therefore, we cannot use hormone-targeted therapy as a supplement to chemotherapy,” Gubner adds.

At Bailey’s suggestion, Goyal and Gubner chose to study SLUG, a repressor protein expressed in triple-negative breast cancer and associated with resistance to chemotherapy, and MTCH2, a pro-apoptotic protein that was identified in a previous study as a putative SLUG target gene. It’s still unknown how SLUG induces resistance to chemotherapy in breast cancer.

“Past research on triple-negative breast cancer helped Professor Bailey successfully identify some of SLUG’s putative target genes and come up with this idea for us,” Gubner says.

The research question is whether SLUG induces resistance to chemotherapy by down-regulating MTCH2. Their hypothesis is that there is a negative correlation between SLUG and MTCH2 in breast cancer cells. “So, when SLUG is present, MTCH2 is not and vice versa,” Bailey explains.

Kevin Gubner working in the lab
Kevin Gubner ’20 works in the lab.

Goyal and Gubner have been working on the project since the summer of 2018. They established the relationship between SLUG and MTCH2 by evaluating these two proteins at two levels of gene expression: Goyal looked at SLUG and MTCH2 expression at the mRNA level, and Gubner looked at the expression of these proteins at the protein level.

“By adding the SLUG genes to increase its representation in breast cancer cells — in other words, forcibly changing its amount — we can see its effect on the expression of MTCH2 more easily,” Goyal says.

The most difficult and yet exhilarating part of their research was “learning the new techniques to look at gene expression,” says Gubner excitedly. When he did his first experiment and got the results on his own, he felt relieved and, at the same time, astonished. “It was an amazing feeling and a eureka-like moment,” he says.

Becoming Flexible and Nimble Scholars

Both of the biochemistry majors give great credit to Bailey, the faculty mentor who introduced them to the research topic and the testing methods. She also helped them understand the technology and “figure out the science behind the techniques to solve the problems faster and more efficiently,” Goyal says.

Although this experience is a huge milestone in their college experience, they have yet to call it a day here. Goyal and Gubner plan to increase their understanding of gene expression in their future work.

They’ve discovered how exciting and enlightening deep research can be and how much they’ve enhanced their own knowledge and skills as a result.

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