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Cancer Warriors

Pharmacy students take the fight to cancer in the lab.

Hundreds of research laboratories are looking at TRPM2 channels to prevent damage from stroke and cardiovascular disease, but only about a dozen are looking at these proteins as a way to kill cancer cells while keeping normal cells healthy. One of those is the molecular pharmacology lab in Ohio Northern University’s Raabe College of Pharmacy. It looks specifically at breast cancer cells and is staffed by ONU undergraduate pharmacy students, under the leadership of Dr. David Koh, assistant professor of pharmacology.

He calls his students “warriors” who do the day-to-day work and are not afraid to work nights and weekends. These hands-on lab warriors are Joy Hoffman, a sixth-year student from Fremont, Ohio; Dan Powell, a fifth-year student from Cranberry Township, Pa.; and Steven Blake, a fourth-year student from Ravenna, Ohio.

After three years of work, they have just had their research published in Oncology Reports, an international journal devoted to fundamental and applied research in cancer treatment. Their work looks at difficult-to-treat breast cancers, including triple negative, and their results are very encouraging. It appears that cancer cells may use these proteins differently than normal cells. That difference could be the key to killing only cancer cells while sparing normal cells and preventing many of the debilitating side effects of cancer chemotherapy.

While the current research is basic, at the cell level, Koh, the primary investigator, hopes to see future studies that look at animal models and possibly lead to studies in humans. He already is applying for grants to further the work.

Koh started his cancer research in 2007 and moved into the TRPM2 studies just before he joined the faculty at ONU because it offers a novel, still-to-be-explored way to target cancer. “In research, you go with the best lead,” he says. “This research was kind of a side project, and now it’s turned out to be a main project for my lab.” It is also turning into a challenging and long-term experience for his students.

Hoffman, who now is off campus doing her sixth-year clinical rotations, had been involved in pharmacokinetics research with her ONU pharmacy advisor and jumped at the chance to continue research in Koh’s lab. She says it was the professor’s enthusiasm for research that keeps her interested.

Blake spends six to eight hours a week in the lab, in addition to his academic work and extracurricular activities as a pianist with the ONU Symphony Orchestra and Women’s Chorus. “Initially, it’s a little overwhelming working with the professor doing this kind of research. I’m incredibly lucky and blessed to have this opportunity.”

Powell, who was introduced to research in high school, had hoped to find a one-semester research experience when he answered Koh’s request for lab workers. His work is now entering its third year. “I love it,” he says.
The lab work is unpaid, but the students earn credit hours. “I’ve already met all those hours,” Powell says. “Now it’s just because I love getting the experience and working with Dr. Koh.”

The students are doing to day-to-day work, but they count on Koh for support. He trains the students in the core lab techniques. “We meet every week and discuss the results and the next step. I call them semi-independent researchers because they know the techniques and they just need some direction now and then. They’re very enthusiastic, and they do just about every technique,” Koh says.

While Blake feels comfortable with the work after three years, if he has a question or a problem, he’ll take it to Koh or save it for their weekly meetings.

Powell says his professor showed him what to do. “Then he’ll step back and say, ‘I trust you; now go to work!’” The result is both a confidence booster and exposure to research that few undergraduates get to experience. “It makes me feel good, as a student, to be trusted,” Powell says.

Powell believes he and the other student researchers really understand the research because of the instruction they receive. “It’s not that we’re just going to put something into this liquid and then measure it. We know what’s going on, and I think that, going forward, this basic level of knowledge is setting a firm base. Gaining the fundamentals right now is very, very valuable.”

Those fundamentals will have an impact on the students’ futures.

Although Hoffman does not plan to pursue a career in research, she calls the experience invaluable. “Conducting research at the ‘benchwork’ level gave me a better appreciation of drug development.” She plans to complete a residency after graduation and believes the basic research skills developed as a student researcher prepare her for future projects she will conduct as a pharmacist. “It was rewarding knowing that my efforts in the lab were contributing to results and that our work could potentially impact drug development and current standards of care.”

Powell will begin his sixth-year rotations next year and is still making career decisions. He says, “I know that I love research, and it’s a strong option, whether in the immediate future or a couple of years down the road, whether it’s clinical research or this sort of laboratory research.”

Blake still has two years before graduation. Research is definitely in his future. He says, “I finally found something that I really, really want to do. I finally found some course for my future, and I know I belong somewhere in the research field, exactly where, I’ll figure out eventually.” He’s planning on additional certification, training or Ph.D. studies for work in an industry or academic setting. He’s even considering teaming academic research and teaching like his mentor, Koh.

“I was quite ecstatic when he told us we were being published,” Blake says. “It is a very big deal. This is just the first step in hopefully a lifelong career of research-oriented work. Right now, cancer is of interest, but I’m very open to other projects involving drug development or characterizing drug actions and side effects.”

Hoffman adds, “I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in research as an undergraduate student. It is a very unique opportunity that sets the pharmacy program at ONU apart from others.”

It’s not just ONU’s pharmacy students who have this opportunity. While not every ONU student will be working in a lab, students from psychology to statistics have the opportunity to work on real-world research, directly with their professors.

More than the experience, ONU’s research is showing real results. “Published research is very exciting, as it distributes our results to others in the field of oncology,” says Hoffman. “Our work has the potential to lead to a novel and targeted approach in treating breast cancer and impact many patients.”

Koh explains that his work is much more than an academic exercise. “There is a great need for cancer research. Breast cancer is still the No. 2 killer among cancers in women. Although there are a lot of drugs out there, we need better drugs. What we are looking at are drugs that will selectively kill cancer cells and leave the rest of your body alone. A lot of cancer-treatment failures aren’t because they can’t kill cancer cells but because of the side effects.”

Preparing students for a potential life in science is part of the curriculum. “We train future leaders in health care, whether pharmacy or medicine or biochemistry,” Koh says. And he expects more good reports and scientists to come from the research labs at ONU.