Summer research opportunity

October 9, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Editors note: This story first appeared in the 2023 Donor Impact Statement, Supporting the Whole Student,published in September. The annual publication highlights the impact of philanthropic support at the university.

Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund provides undergraduates with valuable biology lab skills.

The work of two Worcester State researchers may someday help lead to a new “twist” in cancer treatment, thanks to a grant from the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund.

Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier, Ph.D., Biology Department chair, and student researcher Aspen Zheng ’24 are studying how a protein scientists call TWIST1 promotes metastasis, the process by which secondary tumors form by dispersal throughout the body of cancer cells from a primary tumor. Metastasis is responsible for most cancer deaths.

“Those are cells that separate from the primary tumor, then go through the body, and they have the potential to found new tumors,” Hood-DeGrenier said. “It’s a much more difficult situation if you have many targets that you have to deal with as opposed to a single tumor.”

Hood-DeGrenier and Zheng are trying to understand what is involved in the process of metastasis and how TWIST1 causes cancer cells to be able to move around the body. If the triggers that cause tumor-cell migration, including TWIST1, are better understood, then it may be possible someday to prevent metastasis from getting worse, or even happening at all.

“There potentially could be an anti-TWIST drug that could be a tool for treating metastatic cancer, or even pre-metastatic cancer so that it doesn’t get to that point,” Hood-DeGrenier said.

Zheng is directly involved in all the experiments, which will serve to sharpen her lab skills and help her reach her career goal of becoming a physician. “Aspen will unquestionably learn a lot of things about cancer biology that will be applicable if she pursues her current plan to attend medical school,” Hood-DeGrenier said. “And she also will gain valuable skills that will help her obtain a lab research job during the gap year when she is applying to medical schools.”

While the project aligns with Zheng’s long-term plans, it also provides a more immediate benefit for her as a paid part-time summer job. “I need to earn money over the summer, but, as an international student, it’s very hard for me to find research opportunities off campus because a lot of them are only available to students who have citizenship or a green card, and I don’t have either,” she said. “So, I just feel really grateful for this opportunity.”

Other Worcester State students will also benefit from the research because Hood-DeGrenier will use parts of the project as lab activities in a cancer biology elective course. “We will be trying out some new things in the course lab work to expose more students to more of these techniques,” she said. “There are a lot of different techniques involved that are very basic to almost any kind of cell biology research.”

The Rosen summer research grant is part of a larger gift from alumni couple Gregg Rosen ’86 and Pam Rosen ’87 that supports cancer education, outreach, and awareness initiatives on campus. The Rosens created the fund after Gregg was diagnosed in 2020 with non-Hodgkin’s follicular lymphoma.

The grant includes $3,000 for research supplies, which is critical to the project. “It allows us to buy the things we need because, unfortunately, this type of research is pretty expensive, even on a small scale,” Hood-DeGrenier said. “One of our experiments uses three different antibodies and each of those is over $300. For big research organizations, that’s nothing. But for us here, that’s a lot of money, and the grant covers that. We absolutely couldn’t do it otherwise.”

Zheng says she finds the project especially important. “I feel like I’m doing something really meaningful,” she said. “I have done research before, but cancer research involves a lot of different techniques. I’m learning something new almost every day, and it feels great.”

Hood-DeGrenier plans to present findings from the project at an American Society for Cell Biology conference in Boston in December with funding from the Worcester State Foundation. The conference has an undergraduate poster presentation that they hope Aspen can participate in as well. 

After a pandemic-forced hiatus, Hood-DeGrenier says lab research is finally getting back to normal, a welcome development for faculty and students. “I’ve been really happy this summer to get back into the lab and to work with Aspen,” she said. “I realize that the research we do here is just a tiny drop in the bucket, but for our students it’s transformational.”

Top image: Aspen Zheng ’24 (left) spent the summer working closely with professor Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier (right) researching the process of metastasis, which is responsible for most cancer deaths. They are the recipients of the first summer research grant from the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund,
established by alumni couple Gregg Rosen ’86 and Pam Rosen ’87. Photos by Matt Wright ’10.

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