Martina Brave '17 with Dr. Antonio Di Cristofano at an Albert Einstein SURP poster session.

In 2016, the American Cancer Association expects 62,450 new cases of thyroid cancer with approximately 2,000 deaths. Although anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC) is fairly rare, representing approximately 5% of thyroid cancer, it is also one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with most patients dying within 6 months of diagnosis. Martina Brave’17 got the opportunity this summer to explore the mechanisms behind thyroid cancer, as part of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). 

SURP’s goal is to bring together selected college students with strong science backgrounds, who then do research at one of the world’s top-ranking scientific institutions. Brave was assigned to work in Dr. Antonio Di Cristofano’s lab and with post-doc Dr. Arturo Orlacchio. The research group conducted experiments in order to determine the role of SGKs, a type of kinases, in thyroid cancer by using both chemical and genetic inhibition in mouse and human derived cell lines. In other words, the group wanted to characterize one portion of the pathway that leads to tumor cell growth and find out proteins that are the “key players” for the cancer’s growth. The results would not only be helpful for further our understanding of biochemical components of ATC, but moreover for designing potential drugs that may effectively treat the cancer.

For the experiment, the research group infected different cancer cell lines with virus that shuts down the expression of SGK. Then they selected for successfully infected cells, grew them, and used Western Blots to make sure that SGK proteins were knocked out of the cancer cells. Then they graphed growth curves that reflect the real evolution of cell growth over time, including the comparison between the growths of cells with the proteins knocked out, versus control groups, versus cells that never went through infection in the first place. 

The group found that the chemical inhibitor was able to effectively decrease the cell proliferation, whereas it was almost impossible to slow down the growth with the genetic inhibitor. With this information, they used a drug to inhibit the proteins of interest and successfully decreased the growth of the tumor cells significantly, in both the mice and human thyroid tumor cell lines.

From there, the team conducted a test on the human tumor cells, using two single drugs individually that inhibit separate sides of the tumorigenesis pathway, and found that the synergistic combination of both drugs was significantly more efficient at preventing cell growth than either treatment individually.

Since the results are preliminary, the research group has yet to come to a solid conclusion. Near the end of the program, Brave presented all of her data at a poster session with the other participants.  She is grateful for the help and patience of Dr. Di Cristofano and Dr. Orlacchio throughout the research. With their support, she said that she has learned many of the tools essential for successfully conducting research, and had the opportunity to practice a variety of techniques—including treating cells, creating growth curves, extracting protein to analyze via western blot, amongst many others. 

Brave is glad that the research has allowed her to combine her biggest interests, molecular biology and clinical implications, in one project. She hopes to leave the lab with data that will help them move forward in their research, letting her leave with a sense of accomplishment that the summer yielded some results that may eventually help people suffering from cancer. In the future Brave wants to become a doctor or a physician’s assistant and conduct clinical research.

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