Sep 21, 2023
Two St. Bonaventure University undergraduate students were recognized for their research and public speaking skills following a 10-week summer experience alongside biomedical researchers at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Kira Dewey, a senior biology major from North Tonawanda, and Serena Fan, a senior biochemistry major from Buffalo, participated in the Roswell Park Summer Research Experience Program in Cancer Sciences. A National Institutes for Health grant supports annual 8- to 10-week mentored research experiences for about 20 college students and 14 medical students to help them make decisions about furthering their education and careers in cancer research and oncology. The program draws applications from students nationwide.
The college students completed their summer research program by presenting at a culminating symposium at which they were judged on the quality of their research presentations, both in a traditional technical research talk and a lay-level audience presentation. Fan and Dewey were among four students who received the 2023 Best Scientific Talk award. Dewey’s research was on “Investigating Morphine Related Immune Suppression in Cancer” and Fan’s research was on “Evaluating the Efficacy of Field Treatment on Reducing Clonal Mutations in Actinic Keratosis.”
Dewey did research in Dr. Joseph Barbi’s lab in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park.
“Both cancer and chronic pain are serious threats to life and livelihood, and many cancer patients are prescribed or use opioid medication for various reasons,” Dewey explained. “Unfortunately, these drugs are known to suppress innate and adaptive immunity and are thought to play an important role in tumor development. Further, cancer patients taking opioid medication fail to respond to novel cancer treatments involving immune checkpoint inhibition (ICI) therapy.”
ICI therapy works by removing the immune system’s brakes so that cancer patients have more support in fighting their disease. To find out more about this mechanism, Dewey and other researchers modeled the therapy in mice and looked at markers on immune cells associated with activation and suppression checkpoints.
Dewey said they found signs of heightened immune suppression, specifically in T cells, which help your immune system fight germs and protect you from disease. Many years of additional research is needed, but Dewey hopes the work she participated in will provide a foundation on which to build the growing knowledge about ICI therapy and its resistance.
She said her time at Roswell Park helped her build confidence in her scientific presentation skills and prepared her for her upcoming senior-faculty colloquium this year at St. Bonaventure.
“Conducting research with such direct clinical application piqued my interest, as I aspire to have a medical career,” Dewey said.
Fan’s research looked at actinic keratosis, which is a precancer to a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. The current treatment against actinic keratosis is what’s called ALA/PDT, which uses a combination of a topical cream and light treatment. However, the effectiveness of the treatment is unknown.
“We want to evaluate this by looking at the mutation levels between patients before and after treatment by using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). With the results we got, we saw that the ALA/PDT treatment may have an effect in reducing cancerous mutations,” Fan said.
Most importantly, Fan said, it showed that this technique can be used as a way to characterize the efficacy of treatments.
Growing up in Buffalo, Roswell was a name Fan knew well so she was thrilled to have been selected to conduct research in her own community. Her interest in dermatology led to her choosing actinic keratosis research.
“While my prior research experience mainly focused on wet labs and experiments, I wanted to expand my skills and learn more about analyzing and interpreting data in dry labs,” Fan said. Wet labs are for manipulating liquids, biological matter and chemicals. Dry labs are focused on computation, physics and engineering.
For instance, she learned a lot about large dataset analysis and coding by using the software RStudio.
“It truly made me appreciate how useful coding languages are. There is a big push toward having a computer science background, and I am glad Roswell’s research experience was able to give me the opportunity to learn it. I know these skills will definitely translate in not only my school research but other aspects as well,” Fan said.
Dr. Xiao-Ning Zhang, professor of biology at St. Bonaventure, said she is proud of the students, who invested their summer break in research to expend their horizons and build their self-confidence.
“Research is one of the highest-impact activities in STEM fields. Research is a great opportunity for students to apply their classroom learning to solving real-world problems. This is the spirit of science,” she said.