Hunting a Molecular Predator

A Murdock grant allows four biology students to join professor John Schmitt in the fight against cancer.

Text and photos by Michael Richeson

Jessica Milligan

Jessica Milligan is part of a student team that is researching Vitamin D’s ability to stop or slow down breast cancer cells through a grant by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Foundation.

A grant by the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust Foundation is giving undergraduates at George Fox the opportunity to help fight breast cancer – a disease that will kill 40,000 women this year alone.

Biology professor John Schmitt wrote his proposal for the $39,500 grant in September 2009 and submitted it to Murdock. Scientists from around the world anonymously reviewed the proposal and passed it along to another panel of experts that awarded the grant. Matching funds by George Fox pushed the total to more than $47,000.

The grant helps the biology department and George Fox in multiple ways: It gives the university credibility with scientists involved in biomedical research, finances equipment purchases for future students, opens the door to additional grants, and creates paid jobs for undergraduate students.

“Murdock is very committed to involving students in research,” Schmitt said.

The four biology students helping Schmitt worked full time all summer. Each day, they looked at data, planned experiments and discussed their findings with Schmitt. Senior Samantha Smith, in her second year working on cancer research, “helped make some incredible discoveries in prostate cancer research,” Schmitt said.

The three new faces – senior Jessica Milligan and juniors Jessica Magill and Amanda Ankeny – have jumped into the process and become skilled molecular mechanics.

“They bring an energy and a passion to the lab,” Schmitt said. “They are doing things as juniors and sophomores that I didn’t do until I was in graduate school. It’s exciting to see a 20-year-old comprehend science I didn’t fully appreciate until I was well into my PhD.”

Richter Scholar Cancer Research Team

Jessica Magill, Jessica Milligan, John Schmitt, Amanda Ankeny and Samantha Smith will spend two years working on their breast cancer research.

For Magill, a Richter Scholar and a cell/molecular biology major, her desire to fight cancer is personal. Her brother was diagnosed with the disease a couple years ago.

“I knew I wanted to do research as an undergraduate,” she said. “When I found out Dr. Schmitt was doing cancer research, it was just, everything fit. I was thrilled. This opportunity is incredible.”

Cancer is a hostile disease with confounding complexity. It is not bound by age or race or location – whether internally or geographically. Cancer can strike nearly any part of the body, and its causes are legion. It’s a non-fiction version of the mythical Hydra: cut it off one way, and it can reappear stronger and deadlier than before.

Trillions of cells make up the human body. This staggering number of microscopic building blocks works with miraculous efficiency. Our hearts beat, our hair grows, our muscles contract and extend – all without any real thought or effort on our part.

But then one or two of those cells become corrupt. Instead of dying, they divide and replicate, often at tremendous speed. The lump grows. Sometimes the abnormal cells break off and travel to another part of the body. There, they grow and attack on a new front. This happened to more than 1.5 million people in the United States in 2010. This year alone, more than 500,000 obituaries mentioned a fight with the disease.

That’s where Schmitt and his team of students step in. The two-year project is called “Vitamin D Regulation in Breast Cancer Cells.” Schmitt and the students are testing whether or not the hormone Vitamin D can slow down or stop the growth of cancerous cells.

Jessica Magill

Jessica Magill became interested in fighting cancer when her brother was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.

Vitamin D is a hormone produced in the liver, and it may be able to control an enzyme called CaM Kinase. Schmitt uses an analogy of a car to describe the scenario:

The cell is like an automobile, and the tens of thousands of enzymes (including CaM Kinase) within it act as gasoline. A cancer cell is like a car with the gas pedal floored all the time. Schmitt and his student researchers are testing ways to slow down the car or stop it all together. If they can, then they “open the hood” and try to figure out what happened within the cell.

Can Vitamin D stop the runaway car?

“We went into the project feeling pretty confident,” Schmitt said. “I think it’s safe to say that we have strong preliminary data to suggest that’s the case.”

Schmitt and his team have already made significant headway into the research. He and the students will travel to Washington, D.C., this year for an experimental biology conference to present their initial findings. Within the next 12-16 months, the project’s full findings will likely get published in a professional journal for other scientists to analyze. After that, clinicians could use the research to create new treatments.

Nearly 40,000 women and 400 men will die from breast cancer this year. If Schmitt and his team can find a way to stop cancer’s reckless road trip, thousands of patients may have new reason to hope a cure is on the way.

Advanced Research at George Fox

The chemistry department, led by R. Carlisle Chambers, received a $150,000 grant, which was matched by George Fox, from the National Science Foundation to purchase a $250,000 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer. NMR is used for characterizing the structure of molecular compounds and is state-of-the-art equipment that most small universities don’t have. George Fox also created the Oregon NMR Consortium, a group of four regional colleges and universities that use the NMR either by visiting campus or controlling the instrument remotely over the Internet.

Biology professor Jeff Duerr – in collaboration with professor Jason Podrabsky at Portland State University – received a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explain the cellular mechanisms of embryonic fish in states of suspended animation. The fish survive for months in extremely oxygen-poor mud flats during the dry season but return to normal function when the rainy season raises water levels. Duerr hopes his research may be applied to advanced organ preservation techniques in human medicine and to long-term space travel.

The Petroleum Research Fund awarded chemistry professor Michael Everest a $65,000 grant for a three-year project to study the interaction of molecules with modified glass surfaces. The molecules, polyoxometallates, are used to improve the efficiency of fuel cells.  Most of the grant will go to student and faculty summer stipends and pay for travel to scientific meetings. The funds will support a total of six students over three summers.