Cancer research at UT brings students hope

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Motivated by her father’s battle with cancer, studio art junior Emmy Laursen is participating in Texas 4000 in order to raise money for cancer research. Texas 4000 also funded graduate student Avinash Gadok’s research project that looks to inhibit tumor growth.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

A UT graduate student is exploring a method to inhibit tumor growth by re-establishing cell communication between healthy and cancerous cells. 

Healthy cells communicate with each other and regulate neighboring cells’ growth. To grow rapidly, a cancer cell must sever its connection with other cells. Gap junctions, channels in connecting cells’ membranes, facilitate communication between cells. Avinash Gadok, biomedical engineering graduate student, is examining these junctions in her work.

“Tumorous cells stop making junction proteins,” Jeanne Stachowiak, the faculty sponsor of Gadok’s research project, said. “We’re working to develop a prosthetic material that can go in and reopen junctions between neighboring cells.”

Gadok is 1.5 years into her research project, which involves creating vesicles — membrane-coded particles that contain gap junction proteins — to reopen communications between
normal and cancerous cells.

“We’ve made our materials and now we’re testing its interactions with cells, and we’ve found it’s capable of delivering molecules to cytoplasms of cells,” Gadok said.

Stachowiak said currently, doctors are taking a reactionary approach to cancer treatment, removing tumors once they are found.

“The major approach doctors take is once a tumor is detected, they try surgically removing it or kill the tumor with toxic drugs and radiation,” Stachowiak said.

Though surgery and radiation have been successful in many cases, Stachowiak said modern medicine can be improved by ataking a preventative approach to fighting cancer.

“What we’re working on is an alternative way to treat tumors before they become dangerous,” Stachowiak said. “We’re taking a biochemical approach, not a surgical one.”

Gadok’s research project began with a $25,000 grant from Texas 4000, an organization that bikes approximately 4,500 miles to Alaska to raise awareness and funding for cancer research. Studio art junior Emmy Laursen, a participant in Texas 4000, became involved with the organization because of her personal ties to the cause.

“My dad was diagnosed when I was 16, and I’ll never forget the day he told me,” Laursen said. “He had stage four cancer for 12 years before he was diagnosed.”

Laursen said she is excited to see the money she and her teammates raise leading to progress in cancer research.

“To see a tangible result of what we’re fighting so hard to do [has such a large impact] not only to me and my teammates, but to everyone that supports us,“ Laursen said. “That’s what makes everything we do worth it.