Convincing Cancer Cells to Commit Suicide

Dyson professor Nancy Krucher, PhD, continues her groundbreaking research on cancer cells, with help from Pace biology students.

L-R: Nancy Krucher, PhD, Brandon Lentine, Ray Hunce, and Lisa Antonucci.

“Cancer develops from our own cells that acquire mutations and grow into tumors. Most of the cancer research being done is trying to understand this process and trying to find targets within cancer cells that cause them to grow too much and metastasize,” explains Nancy Krucher, PhD, a Dyson professor in the Department of Biology and Health Sciences on the Westchester Campus. For the last 15 years Krucher has been studying how cancer cells make the decision to grow—essentially studying what causes cancer cells to live or die.

Krucher was recently awarded a three-year grant of more than $380,000 from the National Institutes of Health that will allow her to continue her research here at Pace.  “With this grant,” she says “we will be asking questions about how cancer cells signal to commit suicide, or how they kill themselves. To do that, we do cell biology and biochemistry experiments on cancer cells, mostly breast cancer cells.” Her project, titled “The Role of RB in Dephosphorylation in Apoptosis,” investigates how a protein (RB) affects programmed cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells.

“Much of cancer research is designed to find targets within the cell that could eventually be targets of therapy. Figuring out how cancer cells work is a big part of eventually developing cures,” Krucher says.

But for Krucher, another rewarding aspect of doing this work is mentoring students.  “All of the work is very student driven. It’s just myself and the undergraduates working on this project. The research students get course-credit or they can be supported by the grant, but the purpose is that they learn how to be scientists.”  Krucher explains that her laboratory trains undergraduate students in scientific techniques, helping them learn how to prepare hypotheses, design and analyze experiments, and eventually present their results at national cancer conferences and regional symposia. In addition, Krucher and her students publish papers on their findings.

“Some of the students really love the experience and decide to become scientists,” says Krucher. “For example, I had one student who graduated in 2009 and now he’s doing his PhD at Duke University in cancer biology. He’s going to dedicate his life to cancer research. That’s what really makes me the happiest,” she says.

“Getting the grant is key,” says Krucher, who knows that without funding, research and classroom experience would be radically changed for Pace students. “Working with the students in the lab is a huge part of what I do here and if I didn’t get federal funding, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” she says.

Are you interested in working with an undergraduate student to conduct research during the 2011-2012 year? Pace is committed to strengthening the undergraduate research climate through a new pilot program designed to increase opportunities for students to undertake research and scholarship with faculty. Click here for more information.

Talking Trash

Judith Pajo, PhD, has brought her anthropological approach to studying the habits of New York City households and the complex ways in which society views recycling.

“Our lifestyle is paradoxically both resourceful and wasteful,” says Judith Pajo, PhD, who is studying how New Yorkers deal with trash. “Population growth does not make the waste part better. In the 1800s, the world had fewer than one billion people. Currently, we are nearly seven billion and growing.” Population growth, industrialization, and other factors, have led to pollution and global climate changes. “Our planet is getting warmer and our way of life is just not sustainable,” says Pajo, who decided to dig deeper into the topic.

Sustainability is a large research field that involves many disciplines.  And it impacts academia as well as several industries and governmental and legislative bodies.  Pajo decided to take an unusual approach. “When it comes to sustainability, many people feel the government isn’t doing enough to keep the industry in check. But I focus on consumers. We live in a consumer society,” she says. “Goods are produced because we consume them; at the heart of production is consumption.  I look at our current unsustainability as a way to understand sustainability.”

Currently, she is researching household practices within New York City. “As a cultural anthropologist I take a holistic approach to data,” says Pajo. For her dissertation, at the University of California, she studied recycling in Germany—following the path of waste from the home, to the truck, to the sorting facility in the city of Berlin, and interviewing actors from producers of waste and recycling facility workers to government and private sector experts.  In her current research, Pajo is developing further several aspects of her earlier work.  She hopes that her findings will help us understand how New York City households, and U.S. households more generally, make complicated decisions about sustainability.

“There is something peculiar anthropologists recognize during my research,” Pajo laughs. She calls it “shared stories” because many people would relate them over and over, as though they had happened to each one personally. For example, many of the people she interviewed had seen sorted recycled materials being dumped into a garbage truck or mixed together. “I thought to myself, there is something going on at a deeper level,” she says.

“The information we have about what actually happens with recycling is very simplistic.  As consumers, we want to know more about what happens to the things we recycle.  To be responsible actors, people need a complex view of the recycling process. Information about the process can help inform decisions about consumption,” Pajo explains.  Ultimately, Pajo aims to turn her findings into a book that will help individuals and households answer a question we ask ourselves: Should we recycle?

Are you interested in working with an undergraduate student to conduct research during the 2011-2012 year? Pace is committed to strengthening the undergraduate research climate through a new pilot program designed to increase opportunities for students to undertake research and scholarship with faculty. Click here for more information.

Popularity Pays Off

Doctoral student Arthur O’Connor’s recent study evaluating the correlation between brand popularity across social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, and companies’ daily stock prices is making waves.

Arthur O’Connor, a second year doctoral candidate in Seidenberg’s DPS program, recently spent 10 months investigating the relationship social media has with Wall Street—to some interesting results. O’Connor was able to show a strong correlation between the Internet popularity of three consumer brands and their stock prices. “There’s no such thing as a daily revenue count. Companies do quarterly revenue reports, so I used stock prices as a daily indicator,” explains O’Connor.

O’Connor partnered with Famecount.com, an independently run website that tracks and formulates statistical data from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Famecount.com follows the trends of everything from nonprofits like the TED Conferences to entertainers like Eminem.

“I did the pilot study with Starbucks,” O’Connor says, “and there was a statistically significant correlation of fan count and stock price.” But the pilot study only covered a short period of time. “I wanted to do the study over the long-term, because with such a short time frame, you could begin to see correlations between anything—astrological signs and daily stock prices,” he jokes.

O’Connor expanded his sample to include two other consumer brands: Nike and Coca-Cola. He worked with Famecount.com to collect data on the popularity of these brands and discovered that what he found in his pilot study held true over the course of the 10 months—even accounting for general market conditions. Initially, O’Connor was unsure if online popularity (fan count) was influencing the stock prices or if the stock prices were affecting online popularity (fan count). However, by lagging fan count for 10 and 30 days, he was able to determine that it was indeed online popularity that was influencing stock prices. During this study period, as the popularity of the brands fluctuated on the Internet, Starbucks stock rose by 29 percent, Coca-Cola fell by nearly 6 percent, and Nike middled with stock growth of approximately 14 percent.

In the future, O’Connor hopes to expand his study to include a wider range of consumer brands. He believes that it’s possible for Wall Street to use fan metrics to track consumer brands, but that understanding the nature of the effect is still a challenge. “Companies are still learning the power of social media,” says O’Connor. “This is a window that offers insight into consumer behavior. Fan count and popularity can predict how well a company will do.”

O’Connor’s work is currently garnering its own “fan count” online, with increasing coverage in the media. Here are links to recent articles about his research:

The Wall Street Journal

PC Magazine

SocialMedia Observatory

Famecount.com

 

Saying Goodnight to Sleeping Sickness

Nigel Yarlett, PhD, of the Haskins Laboratories discusses how researchers are working to bring new hope to sufferers of long-ignored diseases.

Nigel Yarlett, PhD, and student researchers

The Haskins Laboratories, which have been at Pace since 1970, have been centered on researching possible cures for diseases that are out of the public spotlight. “We work on things that aren’t stylish—not in vogue. And consequentially, things that aren’t typically funded to a great extent,” says Nigel Yarlett, PhD, director of the Haskins Laboratories at Pace University.

Recently, parasitologists at the Lab have focused their attention on new methods of treatment for Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), also known as sleeping sickness. Researchers are working to develop compounds that will help treat sleeping sickness in the nearly half-a-million infected inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. “Some drugs were developed in the 1920s to treat the illnesses, but these drugs had an arsenic base,” Yarlett says. “For those being treated with these drugs, death occurred more quickly than it would have if they hadn’t been treated!… These are the first new drugs [developed to treat HAT] in 30 years,” says Yarlett, “We’re very excited.”

The researchers have discovered a new line of compounds that have been effective in curing mice and are now being tested on larger mammals. They will be going into clinical trials with a cohort of 1,000 human patients in Africa later this year. They plan to target villages in Africa, whose inhabitants are cut off from any sort of medical access. “For the people living in these villages, this sort of sickness is just a way of life,” says Yarlett.

Additionally, workers at the Haskins Laboratories are attempting to develop a first line of treatment for a far more global issue—cryptosporidiosis, a waterborne illness that causes chronic diarrhea. Its major impact has been among those with weakened immune systems, including those who are HIV+, receiving cancer treatments, or those that have undergone organ transplantation. “Cryptosporidosis is one of the major causes of death in HIV+ people and currently there is nothing available to treat it,” Yarlett says. However Yarlett hopes that the great minds at Pace will soon be able to help in that front as well.

“In the world of parasitology, the Haskins Lab is recognized worldwide,” says Yarlett. “It’s one of the reasons I came to Pace and I’m proud to be a part of such a great asset to the University.”

The Haskins Laboratories was founded in 1935 at General Electrical and Union College by four young and innovative scientists, one of whom became its namesake, Caryl Haskins, a physicist and geneticist. In 1970 it split into two divisions, the Microbiology Division, under Seymour Hutner (one of the original scientists) affiliated with Pace University, and the Speech Recognition and Cognition Division affiliated with Yale University. It is funded by a number of sources, including  the National Institutes of Health (in collaboration with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas), Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), and Genzyme Corp and works  in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies Scynexis and Anacor.

For more information about the work being done at the Haskins Laboratories, click here.

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative has recognized the work of Dyson Professors Cyrus Bacchi, PhD, and Nigel Yarlett, PhD, of the Haskins Laboratories, with the Project of the Year 2011 Award for the development of the first new drug to go to clinical trial and the first new treatment for Human African Trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”) in more than 40 years.

Muskrat Love (and Other Animals)

From tracking wild pumas in Chile, to looking at local rat populations, Melissa Grigione, PhD, is trying to make the world a safer place for all animals—and pass that knowledge and passion on to her students at Pace.

Melissa Grigione, PhD, and her husband, Ron Sarno, PhD, tagging burrowing owls.

“The animals may change, but my interest hasn’t,” says Melissa Grigione, PhD, director of Pace’s graduate program in environmental science who is currently spearheading a number of research projects to study and protect the habitats of wild animals.

Grigione, who began her college career in a pre-veterinary program at McGill University, soon realized her real passion was the conservation and protection of wild species.  “My interest began with marine mammals—dolphins, manatees—and eventually spread to other animals. I was in Africa twice, in West Africa to study elephants, and then I branched out to studying endangered land carnivores,” Grigione explains.

Currently, Grigione is studying the native (yet seldom seen) inhabitants of the New York area: mink, bobcats, weasels, and muskrats. These species have very healthy populations, she notes, which allows her to study the concept of conservation from the other end of the spectrum. “We ask the opposite question: What makes these animals common? How are they able to ‘make a living’?” she says, “I studied the requirements they needed to live in a healthy fashion—the space they needed, spatial ecology, then I moved to their diets, and eventually I moved on to the parasites and diseases affecting these populations.”

Last summer, Grigione and her husband, a professor of ecology and genetics at Hofstra, took their children on a six-week RV-ing adventure in the Badlands of South Dakota. “The kids just love, love, love to study animals,” she says, “And with the help of the National Park Service, we studied the diets of bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep… While we were in South Dakota, we took a drive to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is a Lakota Sioux reservation. There was a college on the reservation, so we went to visit. There were no students, but there was one woman walking around the campus. It turned out that the woman was the CFO of the college,” Grigione laughs.

Melissa Grigione, PhD, and family

The chance meeting ended up becoming an exciting opportunity—not only for Grigione but also for Pace. This summer, Grigione plans on expanding her research and returning to the reservation to teach at the college.  “I like the melding of the traditional and the scientific. There are elders on the reservation, and I think we have a lot to learn from one another. I’d eventually like to bring some of their faculty to Pace; I think it would be a fruitful experience for our students in New York,” she says.  She also hopes that someday in the future, graduate students at Pace will be able to travel with her to South Dakota.

“Animals enrich our lives and I feel I really need to do the right thing to affect change… I want to inspire students to do amazing things. I want to turn them on to the field that’s turned me on for so many years,” Grigione says. “Seeing my students blossom is truly incredible. What’s unique about our graduate environmental science program is that it’s more than just science—it’s policy, law, environmental communication. This diversity means our students come out equipped with skills they need to share with the rest of the world that’s so hungry for solutions.”

Unplugging the Biological Clock

Ida Dupont works to uncover why, for more and more Americans, hitting the snooze button on having kids is not enough.

Since the 1970s, the rate of women who choose not to have children has doubled. Ida Dupont, PhD, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology on Pace’s NYC Campus, has spent the last few years examining this trend and interviewing women, men, and couples from various backgrounds in an attempt to puzzle out why some people choose to remain childfree.

“I’m having a difficult time giving a name to what I’m researching,” Dupont says. “‘Childless’ has a negative connotation and if I say ‘childfree by choice’ it sounds as though we’re trying to escape children.” Dupont has focused her research on how people who choose not to have children are perceived by the community (and the inclusion or exclusion that comes with that), as well as what puts them on this particular path.

“We talk about choice in very different ways. As Americans, we’re free to do what we want. With that comes the realism of limitations,” says Dupont. “A lot of people who choose not to have children value parenting, but they don’t feel up to the task. They don’t want to bring a child into a difficult world, there are monetary issues—for them, it is a rational decision.”

Another small subgroup of adults reported to Dupont that they chose to not have children because of the environmental impact having a child would create. “This was something that came up often enough to be noticed. They weren’t just outliers. They were concerned with diapers and toys and other things that came with having a child. This really struck me,” she says.

For others, however, the choice to remain childfree was one that seemed almost intrinsic. As she conducted her research, she began to note a trend of women who reported not feeling maternal instincts. “These women would say that even as children they felt different. They didn’t play with dolls and so on,” says Dupont. “I had expected these women to be cold, but that wasn’t the case. They had close relationships with people, they gave back to their communities, and most had a great love of animals.”

Both men and women who chose to remain childfree often felt pressure exerted upon them. For men, there was familial pressure to carry on the family legacy, as well as the perception that they were suffering from Peter Pan syndrome. And both men and women alike were perceived as selfish for their choice. However, “Women have their identities wrapped in motherhood,” says Dupont. “Women without children are seen as lacking. They have to work to construct a feminine identity that is separate from being a mother…There was one woman who told me ‘If I could be a 1950s hands-off father, I’d consider it.’ Can you imagine?”

The interplay between gender and identity is an area of great interest for Dupont. “I’d like to use my research to write a book, preferably something not academic and more accessible. I think this is something people can really relate to.”