3:05 p.m., Dec. 17, 2010----A doctoral student in the University of Delaware's Department of Biological Sciences has been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive federal research grant to study the spread of prostate cancer, using a special gel in which she grows the cancer cells.
Lisa Ann Gurski won the three-year award from the Department of Defense Prostate Cancer Research Program. One of her advisers, Kenneth van Golen, associate professor of biological sciences, said the program funds only about 1 percent of applicants and is based on numerous factors including the student's motivation and potential for independent research, the university's training program and the quality of the student's mentors, as well as the scientific basis of the research.
Gurski's research has two components. She is studying the particular type of gel, called a hyaluronic acid-based hydrogel, in which she is growing prostate cancer cells in the lab, hoping that the novel substance may prove useful for other types of research as well. At the same time, she is investigating the way in which prostate cancer can metastasize, or spread, to a patient's bones.
“When cancer metastasizes to the bone and goes to the marrow, it becomes a fatal disease,” Gurski said. “The gel mimics bone marrow and is relatively easy to use. It's a three-dimensional environment for growing cells, which is more accurate than using a cell-culture plate.”
Until recently, she said, using 3-D methods of growing cells for research was unheard of, but now scientists are increasingly using different types of gels in their work. The substance she is using was developed in the lab of Xinqiao Jia, assistant professor in UD's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who is another of Gurski's research advisers.
“The studies Lisa proposed are very exciting and promising and, if successful, can contribute to the development of new and better chemotherapeutic agents to treat advanced prostate cancer,” Jia said.
In investigating how prostate cancer metastasizes, Gurski is focusing on a specific molecule, which has not been widely studied, in the cells themselves to learn whether it contributes to the spread of the disease.
“In an ideal outcome for my work, if I found that the molecule played a major role in metastasis, then researchers could develop a way to block it and prevent prostate cancer from metastasizing,” she said.
Gurski began her research working with Mary C. Farach-Carson, then professor of biological sciences at UD who now is on the faculty of Rice University but remains involved with the Center for Translational Cancer Research in Delaware, a partnership among UD, A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, Christiana Care Health System and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.
“Lisa's project is taking the study of cancer cell behavior into 3D. The 3D platform is much closer to the way cancer cells behave in patients and is a much needed step toward personalized medicine, when we will be able to quickly determine the first and best way to kill cancer cells without harming normal cells,” Farach-Carson said.
“Translational research ultimately is about bringing lab discovery to the clinic. That is what the Center for Translational Cancer Research is all about -- discovery to recovery.”
Gurski's research grant comes just a year after Madhura Joglekar, also a doctoral student in biological sciences advised by van Golen, won a similar award from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program for her work on inflammatory breast cancer.
“In the past, the University of Delaware was not considered a contender for cancer research or as a training institution,” van Golen said. “Due to the work of several faculty, UD is now considered to be an outstanding institution for both research and training. Our training plan for pre-doctoral students is quite extensive and includes attending weekly conferences at [Christiana Care's] Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, which review particularly difficult cancer cases.”
Article by Ann Manser
Photo by Ambre Alexander