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Oncology Research Institute hosts Loyola undergrads for research internships

By Erinn Connor

The world of cancer research is constantly looking for fresh ideas in the ongoing fight against the disease, which is the second leading cause of death in the United States. For the first time, undergraduate students from Loyola University Chicago’s Lake Shore Campus had the opportunity to contribute to cancer research through the Oncology Research Institute’s summer internship program.

Students presented their summer research projects at a Research Symposium to their mentors as well as other Oncology Research Institute faculty. Their internships involved intense lab work alongside graduate and PhD students—valuable hands-on experience for science undergraduates still considering their post-graduation options.

“This was an opportunity to build strong bridges between campuses,” said Michael Nishimura, PhD, co-director of the Oncology Research Institute and professor of surgery at the Stritch School of Medicine. “We always think students from the Lake Shore Campus will never come here, but these are students who are motivated and they’ll do what they need to do to get valuable experience.”

For their projects, students took on a small piece of ongoing research in their mentor’s lab. This ranged from learning more about the mechanisms behind a type of leukemia, figuring out how to harness T-cells, what makes breast cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy, and more.

During their presentations, students summarized the goal of their lab’s research and what their daily work in the lab consisted of. Much of it involved the use of complicated lab equipment and tedious processes, taught to them by seasoned graduate students.

Undergraduate Thomas Bank worked in the lab of Wei Qui, PhD, an assistant professor of surgery in the division of surgical research. Qui’s lab focuses on hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer that will cause more than 27,000 estimated deaths in 2016.

Bank’s project involved studying the role of ATP6V1C1, a gene that helps to regular the PH of a cell. It is also thought to play a role in cell transformation, tumor formation and cancer cell metastasis.  

Through his research, Bank found that by knocking down ATP6V1C1, or reducing the gene’s ability to express its function, it decreased liver cancer cell growth and invasion. This knowledge could eventually lead to the development of a new drug to treat liver cancer.

“Using this information from my research, the next step for the lab is to also test how sensitive ATP6V1C1 is to current cancer drugs,” said Bank.

Many projects in Nishimura’s lab concentrated on T-cells. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that target invading viruses and bacteria and destroy them. But, as Loyola undergraduate Claire Auger explained, “T-cells don’t recognize your own cells, and that’s how cancer originates, from your own cells. So that’s why they can’t stop cancer.”

Auger’s summer research looked at the expression of T-cell receptors, which activate the T-cell in response to a foreign antigen. She compared T-cells that were activated by outside the body means to T-cells that were activated by an antigen. She found that the receptors were very sensitive, and that just because they were expressed in a T-cell did not necessarily mean the T-cell was activated to do its job.

This information could be helpful in developing new immunotherapy methods. Immunotherapy is a fast-growing type of cancer treatment that harnesses your own immune system to fight cancer. There are different types of immunotherapy, one that isolates T-cells from a tumor and modifies them to make them better at destroying cancer cells. Another is a using a drug that can “mark” cancer cells so to the T-cells can better find and fight cancer cells.

The work started by the undergraduate students will be continued in their mentors’ labs. The internship organizers hope this can become an annual program offered to Loyola undergrads every summer.

“We really wanted to get together with the basic sciences students and improve their opportunities for research,” said Patrick Stiff, MD, co-director of the Oncology Research Institute, division director of hematology and oncology and Coleman Professor of Oncology. “We wanted them to be able to use the knowledge they gained in the classroom to do real-world, first-class cancer research.”