Student research could lead to cancer breakthrough

Emerson '17 may have work published in a professional scientific journal

by Neil C Evans

May 25, 2017

—Graduating senior Alex Emerson ’17 might just have the fresh perspective the scientific community needs for its battle against cancer.

In Christine Marshall-Walker’s yearlong Bio 600: Molecular and Cellular Biology Research class, Emerson and his classmates were tasked with posing an original scientific question, designing a set of experiments, and carrying out a research project. Inspired by a recent study showing that N-3-Oxo-Dodecanoyl-L-Homoserine Lactone (HSL), a molecule released by the superbug Pseudomonas Aeruginosa, can slow the spread of pancreatic cancer, Emerson wondered whether the same compound might inhibit the movement of glioblastoma (brain cancer) cells. “Alex’s project is unique in that he’s artfully maximized the resources available in our lab, employing a combination of two popular model systems to pursue a really cool question,” says Marshall-Walker.

During the course of the year, Emerson has proven himself to be a methodical experimentalist, carefully performing his work with minimal guidance from Marshall-Walker. In only a few months’ time, he demonstrated reliable decreases in migration within his cell cultures without compromising cell survival. He hopes that one day it will be possible to use the HSL molecule therapeutically in humans to stop the spread of brain cancer without killing healthy cells.

cells

Emerson says the most satisfying part of his research has been to see his work evolve, and actually work. “There are so many different places that something can go wrong during experimentation that it’s a huge relief once I can see the cells on the slide and begin to collect data,” he said.

Currently, Emerson is working on additional experiments in collaboration with a professor of neuropathology at Columbia University, and if all goes well, he may be the first Bio 600 student to have work published in a professional scientific journal before heading off to college at the University of Chicago this fall.