Ms. Davies, a graduate of Pelham Memorial High School and Sarah Lawrence College, attended a summer research program for science teachers this year, 2012, at Columbia University. When matched with a lab, Ms. Davies chose to research cancer. Scientifically speaking, cancer is defined as uncontrolled cell growth or abnormal cell division. As a result of her decision, Ms. Davies was placed in the Irving Cancer Research Center where she worked with Dr. Ben Tycko, Dr. Tamas Gonda, and Angelica Cullo. In their lab, they worked with a medicine called Dacogen (Dac) that is currently being used to treat certain blood cancers. They tested whether or not it can also treat pancreatic cancer. Dac is supposed to lower the amount of methylation, or the addition of a methyl group (CH3) to the cytosine or adenine of DNA. In hypermethylation, tumor-suppressor genes, which help prevent cancer, are turned off. In hypomethylation, oncogenes, which contribute to cancer, are activated. Both forms of methylation are conducive to cancer, yet are not just as simple as on-off switches. To test if the Dac would succeed in demethylyzing the DNA of those with pancreatic cancer, Ms. Davies and her colleagues performed a test involving mice bred with this illness. Some of the mice were treated with the Dac, while the others were injected with PBS, or salt water, to serve as a control group. After a couple weeks, the mice were sacrificed and the pancreas of each was removed. The heavier the pancreas, the more cancerous, so it was a great discovery to find that the Dac-treated pancreases were much lighter than the PBS-treated ones. The Dac had worked! However, it is still unknown if it will work this same way on humans. From this experiment, several questions to be researched arose, such as, “Where is the methylation happening?” as well as, “What genes are specifically being altered by the Dac treatment?” To attempt at tackling these questions, Ms. Davies used two main research techniques. One is called immunohistochemistry, which involves staining, and the other is immunofluorescence, which involves using a laser confocal microscope to take pictures showing wavelengths. From her extensive work, many new questions were brought on, creating much room for future study. Ms. Davies will be returning to the Columbia program next summer to continue with further research.
The conclusions formed from Ms. Davies’s research and where the studies can go from here provides hopeful promise in defeating cancer, which would greatly affect humanity. Cancer is the second leading cause of death (heart disease is number one), so clearly, finding a cure would positively impact the lives of millions. In fact, one of the sole reasons Ms. Davies chose to research cancer is because her father had died of kidney cancer. At the time, she felt quite helpless since she knew so little about the disease. Another reason she chose this research path is due to the fact that cancer affects so many people, yet is rarely taught in school. This is why it is currently Ms. Davies’s goal to integrate the subject of cancer into her Core Biology and Living Environment classes. Other steps she is preparing to take to spread her research includes presenting it at the Partners in Science Conference in San Diego this January 2013. Finally, Ms. Davies would also like to “continue testing different macrophage markers to distinguish macrophage types.” Macrophages are a type of white blood cells. They are a normal part of one’s immune system, but only some are considered “good guys,” while the others are bad and can contribute to cancer. So much can be done from here in this entirely new field of science, all of which offers newfound hope in a cure for cancer.
Ms. Davies’s did a great job at presenting her information. Cancer is a complex topic filled with many technical points and facts. Despite this, Ms. Davies was very successful in explaining her discoveries, giving a good break down of complicated ideas. I still did find some things a bit confusing. However, this is understandable because Ms. Davies’s had the difficult task of taking all that she learned from spending eight weeks at the Columbia summer program and trying to explain it to a crowd that knows almost nothing about the subject in under an hour. She was quite successful in doing so, which really impressed me. In my opinion, the parts about the process of methylation and the Dac experiment on mice were very well explained, as I found them pretty easy to follow from Ms. Davies’s descriptions. Throughout the presentation, I was genuinely interested. It was definitely very informative, and I learned a lot.