Mount St. Joseph University freshman basketball player Lauren Hill spent the final months of her life raising awareness of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) and promoting cancer research. Through this work, she impacted many people she never even met—particularly those in the Mount community who have dedicated much of their time to all forms of cancer research.
Dr. Tracy Reed-Kessler, professor of biology and neuroscience program co-director, is working with two Mount students researching a chick embryo that looks at the ability of cancer cells to promote blood vessel branching. They hope to soon use a brain cancer cell line in this research.
Their research method is a simple model system that can quickly be used to determine the metastatic potential of a cell line or if a new chemical can stimulate or inhibit blood vessel formation or branching.
“Many cancer therapies try to prevent angiogenesis (vessel branching) from occurring,” Reed-Kessler says. “Tumors that can’t stimulate a blood supply can’t survive. To be able to examine the reaction of a living organism to a potential treatment is very exciting.”
Erija Nealeigh, a senior biology major, is working with Reed-Kessler as part of her coursework. “Cancer has been and still is such a prevalent health issue, and just like any other, it not only affects the lives of those diagnosed, but their families as well,” Nealeigh says. “I would be ecstatic if a cure for cancer was found in my lifetime, and if I could be even the smallest part in aiding that process along, how amazing would that be?”
While Nealeigh’s primary focus in this project is on a breast cancer cell line, she says Lauren’s story was inspirational. “Her ‘ never give up’ attitude will continue to be one of the driving forces behind my motivation to conquer any and all challenges that may come my way,” Nealeigh says.
Many primary cancers metastasize to bone or the brain. “My other area of study is the brain and molecular pathways that control behavior,” Reed-Kessler says. “To understand how a primary tumor changes in order to metastasize is an important step in stopping the metastasis. Since brain tumors are very hard to treat successfully, understanding and stopping this initial process would give an individual a much better chance of survival.”
This research was planned before Hill was diagnosed, but Reed found Hill’s courageous battle and drive to help others with brain cancer inspiring. “I don’t think that anyone who does cancer research and who knew Lauren or her story could not help but be touched by her and her efforts to make a difference in the lives of others who are batting this disease,” Reed-Kessler says.
Heather Christensen, associate professor in the Mount’s Department of Biology, is also active in cancer research. “The work I conduct is a marriage between my two research interests—endocrinology and cancer,” she says. “Breast cancer is considered a hormone-sensitive cancer because the initiation, growth and metastasis of cancers in this tissue often depend on hormones.”
Christensen is conducting her research with three Mount students using mice as a source of human prolactin. They treat cells in culture (or in vitro research, which is conducted outside of an animal model) to understand the cellular effects of prolactin in breast cancer.
Christensen, too, was especially impacted by Lauren’s story. “During my sophomore year of undergraduate school, my roommate was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer,” Christensen says. “She survived and has been cancer-free for many years now. But you just don’t forget an experience like that—when someone so young is diagnosed with such a grave illness.”
As a member of the Mount’s dance team, senior biology major Mariah Dooley witnessed Lauren’s dedication and inspiration every time she stepped out on the basketball court. “I never knew anyone my age with any kind of illness; her strength and courage throughout her journey made what I do when I walk into the lab seem important,” she says.
Dooley has been working on a gastric cancer study at Wood Hudson Cancer Research Lab, a nonprofit lab based in Newport, Ky., which researches multiple types of cancers using live cell cultures as well as histological samples. August marked Dooley’s third semester at the lab—she works 10 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters, and 20 hours a week during the summer.
“I was looking to determine if a certain gene called Pak-1 would be over-expressed in three gastric cancer subtypes,” Dooley says. “From there, I looked at the relationship between the over-expression of that gene and survival rates, and now I am looking at a different gene called TGF-alpha, which is thought to share a relationship to Pak-1 and looking to see how that gene effects same gastric cancer patients and their survival.”
Dooley plans to apply her hands-on experience to her future career as a [INFO TK]. “What Lauren did was amazing and will never be forgotten,” she says. “She inspired me to stay at the lab as long as I have and continue my research because I believe that what I do actually matters and can make a difference.”
Mary Wright, also a senior biology major, recently completed a summer co-op at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center researching liver cancer. She spent 40 hours a week this summer working with three fellow lab assistants and her boss, Dr. Nikolai Timchenko, head of the liver tumor program at the hospital. “My research involves figuring out what pathways cancer takes to affect the liver and cause tumors,” Wright says. “We are also performing different experiments to see which enzymes and proteins are involved in the process and how they work.”
For many Mount students and professors, Lauren Hill’s legacy will continue to inspire.
“It’s not just mixing test tubes and looking at slides,” Dooley says. “Because of Lauren Hill, I feel like my accomplishments matter.”
- Dr. Tracy Reed-Kessler works alongside Mount students as they study a chick embryo to learn how cancer cells promote blood vessel branching. These embryos show the vasculature when chicks are developing.
- Two layers of mesh with gelatin between are applied to the embryos and placed under a microscope. This allows Reed-Kessler's team to better study new blood vessels growing through the mesh and count the number of branches. Her students will add breast and brain cancer cells to the gelatin to see if they induce blood vessels to grow toward them into the gelatin and mesh (more growth = the more metastatic potential).