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Biology Student Making Strides in Cancer Research

By Caitlin Friess

Nicholas Watson

A cell and molecular biology lab on campus, run by Professor Katie DeCicco-Skinner, has a particularly resourceful way of securing the sample cells it uses for research.

It’s liposuction, and according to Nicholas Watson, an undergraduate technical assistant, the lab collaborates with a plastic surgeon to collect the lipoaspirate left over from his surgeries. It’s a financially beneficial move for both parties: the surgeon doesn’t have to pay for waste disposal, and the lab doesn’t have to purchase sample cells from a company.

With this lipoaspirate, students in the lab can isolate stem cells, which they treat with growth hormones to create specific cell types—in this case, fat cells. The students use the fat cells to study the link between obesity and multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that manifests in bone marrow.

The Research

In the lab, Watson and his peers are studying the link between this form of cancer and obesity.

“If you’re obese, you have a higher chance of developing cancer,” said Watson, “and if you do develop a form of cancer, it is likely to be more aggressive and more deadly. We are trying to find the connections on a molecular level as to how obesity makes this happen.”

Members of the lab grow and culture multiple myeloma cells with adipocytes, which are human fat cells. They place these cells in different conditions to study how they behave in the presence of obese versus lean fat cells.

“It gives us a way to mimic the bodily environment,” Watson says. “And what we’re looking for is which molecular markers and proteins the cells are making that link to multiple myeloma. Specifically we want to know if they make more of them when they are grown with obese fat cells compared to when they are grown alone or with lean fat cells.”

The types of markers they typically look for are inflammation factors, angiogenesis (the pull of blood vessels to the cancer), and invasive factors that cause the cancer to spread.

“What we see a lot of the time is that cancer cells like to produce more inflammatory factors, like to bring more blood vessels to the cancer, and like to invade more when they are grown with obese fat cells,” Watson says. “From this we can reasonably assume that these reactions would be a more aggressive in a live person.”

If the lab can find certain factors that are very highly regulated in cells that are classified “obese”, their data can go to organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create drugs and treatments that are more tailored towards multiple myeloma and obesity in general.

Watson, who has accepted an assistantship to continue his graduate studies at AU, is eager to continue his work in DeCicco-Skinner’s lab.

“Hopefully we can continue doing what we’re doing and keep gathering data. Right now my hope is that at the end of my master’s in two years I’ll have my own publication on this research.”

The Lab Community

“We are known in the bio department as the lab with all the undergraduates,” Watson says. “We usually have seven or eight undergraduates in there at any given time, and at different times throughout the week. It gives people a great look at how research works outside an academic setting.”

Watson credits DeCicco-Skinner’s involvement for the functional learning environment the lab creates.

“Just being in the lab you learn a lot, and DeCicco-Skinner is really good about being there and working with you regardless of whether you are in the lab or the classroom.”

Watson has worked in the lab for the past 10 months and has begun to teach and supervise new students as they learn new lab techniques.

“I was lucky to work in the lab in the summer, which is a time when you get to learn a lot and get the bulk of your research done,” Watson says. “I had the chance then to learn how to do everything from start to finish. Getting to teach helps me, too, because explaining something to someone who doesn’t understand helps you understand it even better.”

Watson encourages new students to speak to their professors, get to know what work they are doing, and ask them if they are looking for help in their labs.

“Professor DeCicco-Skinner talks about her research a lot in her classes, which is how she finds most of her researchers,” Watson says. “She can see how well they know the subject matter and what their work ethic is like. Professors don’t expect you to know everything about their research, but it matters when they see you express interest and enthusiasm about the material. It’s the best way to get into this side of science.”