Whether it's through a distant acquaintance, a beloved family member, or a first-hand battle, almost every human being has been touched by cancer.
Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Brandon, a biology professor at Mississippi College, is working to change that. Assisted by MC students, Dr. Brandon is conducting a long-term research project that studies the connection between obesity and increased risk of deadly melanoma.
"I was intrigued by this project from a scientific perspective, but also because my grandfather died of cancer when I was a child," Dr. Brandon says. "He had pancreatic cancer, but looking back, we think it might have been triggered by a melanoma. We all have a connection to cancer."
Dr. Brandon began working on the melanoma/obesity research project during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and brought the project with her when she joined the MC faculty in 2008. Dr. Brandon has invested nearly five years studying the link between fat cells, hormones, and melanoma.
"Dr. Brandon is a very passionate
teacher and a great mentor. She
encourages her students to think
outside the box to find solutions
to problems we encounter in the
lab, and allows us to be independent
thinkers. We learn when our experiments work and we also
learn when they fail. The fun, creative environment, plus
Dr. Brandon's passion for research and teaching, make
working in her lab extremely enjoyable."
-Elizabeth Bui ‘09, Research Assistant
"We normally think of melanoma as a cancer related to sun exposure, but research has shown a link between melanoma and leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells," Dr. Brandon explains. "The amount of leptin the body produces is directly related to the amount of body fat a person has – as a person's fat mass expands with weight gain, that person produces more leptin. The hormone, in turn, causes the melanoma tumors to get larger."
The goal of Dr. Brandon's research is to determine why leptin and other hormones associated with obesity cause the melanoma cells to grow, and whether those hormones also make the cancer cells more resistant to chemotherapy drugs. Finally, the study looks at whether or not obesity-related hormones play a role in melanoma's ability to metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body.
Dr. Brandon's objective is not only to find the link between leptin and other obesity-related hormones and melanoma, but also to find a way to break it. Severing the connection between the hormones and the cancer could mean slowing the growth of the tumors, lowering the cancer's resistance to chemotherapy, and preventing the melanoma from metastasizing.
"In melanoma cases, it's usually not the primary skin tumor that kills the patient. That tumor can be excised, but by the time it's detected, the cancer has often already spread to other organs, like the lungs, the liver, or the pancreas. At that point, the prognosis is usually poor," Dr. Brandon says. "If we can find a way to block or slow down these three processes in the cancer cells – proliferation, survivability, and metastasis – we give clinicians the chance to beat back the melanoma."
Dr. Brandon is assisted in her work by Mississippi College biology and chemistry students, who gain real world experience in a well-equipped research lab and have the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking cancer research before they ever graduate. Eight students, including six undergraduate and two graduate students, are currently working alongside Dr. Brandon on the melanoma project.
"This is my first semester of experience in doing laboratory research, and it's definitely stimulated my interest in the use of research to solve practical problems in medicine," says MC senior biology major Alex Mann. "I'm currently applying to medical school, and I plan on seeking more research opportunities with my professors as a med student."
Like Dr. Brandon, Elizabeth Bui has been intimately touched by cancer; her father died of the disease. Bui graduated from MC in 2009 with a master's degree in medical sciences and will enter the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 2011; she is considering specializing in oncology, the treatment of cancer. Bui assisted with the melanoma research project as an MC student, and now works part time in the lab supervising the current student research assistants.
"As an undergraduate, I took many courses in microbiology and tumor biology. Like most students, I learned the theories, but I rarely had opportunities to apply those theories," Bui says. "When I had the chance to work with Dr. Brandon on hands-on research, I didn't hesitate. I discovered that medical research is like a good mystery or puzzle. I like research for the challenges and the vastness of it – the results you find allow you to connect many dots. Research stretches your brain to a level you didn't think you could achieve."
The research study is now in what Dr. Brandon refers to as "Phase 1," which involves growing the melanoma cells in petri dishes and combining them with leptin and other hormones to see how those hormones influence the cancer cells' ability to grow and metastasize. By the summer of 2011, the project could move into Phase 2, an animal study using mice; Phase 2 will be conducted in collaboration with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and will continue to involve MC students as research assistants.
With few institutions or organizations studying the relationship between melanoma and obesity, the possibility is high that the research project at Mississippi College could be one of the first to uncover critical information about the link. Recognizing the importance of the work, the National Institutes for Health recently awarded Dr. Brandon and Mississippi College a $100,000 INBRE (Idea Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant. Renewable annually for up to three years, the initial grant paid for supplies and equipment, and will also provide the funding necessary for Dr. Brandon and her MC student research team to work on the project during the summer of 2011. The INBRE grant program funds projects that increase undergraduate involvement in biomedical research – a mission that's close to Dr. Brandon's heart.
"It's important for students to realize how much fun it is to explore," Dr. Brandon says. "People sometimes envision a research scientist as a person working all alone in a quiet lab, but in reality, research is very social. We cannot practice science in isolation. For a project to succeed, we have to collaborate and share our ideas and our findings. A research project creates a community of common goals, draws on everyone's strengths, and makes us all better scientists and better thinkers. With so much to learn and so much to gain, it's never too soon for a student to become involved in research."
Thank you and God Bless You and Those You Teach!!!
Janie Cooley (Kelly Doremus' maternal grandmother)