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Students hope research will lead to treatment for breast cancer
04-17-14

They never imagined when they were in high school that the research they would be doing as undergraduates in college may someday lead to a treatment for breast cancer.

Misericordia University seniors Donna Castelblanco ‘14, of Edison, N.J., and Sara Sabatino ‘14, of Nuangola, Pa., and sophomore Rachel Bohn ‘16, of Mountain Top, Pa., are spending every spare moment they have in a biology laboratory working one-on-one with Misericordia biology Professor Frank DiPino, Jr., Ph.D. Their project: use molecular biology methodologies to prepare, characterize and alter the PAK-2 gene to explore potential to use it as a therapeutic target in the development of anti-tumor drugs.

 “Why PAK-2? The PAK-2 gene encodes a protein that acts as a molecular switch to control cell behaviors such as cell division, migration, and survival,” explains Dr. DiPino. “In breast cancer and colon cancer, this molecular switch is short-circuited and the cell divides, migrates and survives in an abnormal uncontrolled manner. These abnormal behaviors lead to tumors and metastasis.”
 
In the second phase of their research, the pre-medicine students will use in vitro mutagenesis to introduce specific mutations in the DNA of the PAK 2 protein. “This is analogous to cutting each wire to the switch until the short circuit is identified. Once the short circuit is identified, drugs can be developed to bypass the short circuit thereby correcting the normal circuitry and returning the normal behaviors of the cell,” Dr. DiPino adds.
 
The students know their work is just one piece of a much larger genetic puzzle being tackled by researchers around the globe. The team is working in collaboration with Jun Ling, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and director of the Office of Research Compliance at The Commonwealth Medical College, Scranton, Pa.

Sara Sabatino works alongside Dr. Frank DiPino.

“We have a very marvelous relationship and a mutually beneficial collaboration between TCMC and Misericordia University,” says Dr. Ling. “TCMC is a medical school with research strength, and we can provide training to the Misericordia students. In turn, they are gaining research experience and are generating data that is contributing to and helping speed up my research efforts. By working together, we are helping promote their academic studies while providing training that fosters success in research or medicine-oriented careers.”
 
Having started their work in earnest in September 2013, by March 2014 the Misericordia group had already made enough clinical progress to be asked to present a review of their findings at the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Annual Meeting in New Orleans, La., alongside Dr. DiPino.
 
 “Ever since I came to a biology summer camp at Misericordia, I wanted to go to school here,” says Sabatino, a biology major who plans to pursue a career as a medical examiner. “I was intrigued when I first saw the cadaver lab … not many undergraduate schools have one. Still, I never imagined I would have an opportunity as an undergraduate to be a part of such an important research project and present at national conferences.”
 
Sabatino will graduate from Misericordia in May and has been accepted to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine where she will work towards a master’s degree in forensics.
 
Bohn, a fellow biology major, says she is inspired to pursue a career as a primary care doctor by her mother, Misericordia alumna Donna Hudick Bohn ‘89, Pharm. D., and her father, Dr. Mark W. Bohn. M.D. “It is just amazing to me that what we are doing in the Misericordia lab in a short period of time could impact the threat of cancer across the country and around the world,” Bohn says. “It is exciting to collaborate with researchers because that is what the field of biology is all about. It is very nice that we get to be exposed to that type of interaction at an undergraduate level.”

For Castelblanco, the founder and president of the AMSA Premedical Club on campus, her academic path has taken many more twists and turns. She enrolled at Misericordia as a psychology major and planned to pursue a doctoral degree in physical therapy, but was drawn to the natural sciences and an interest in philosophy. By combining the two, she will graduate with a degree in professional studies in May with minors in ethics and chemistry – and has decided on a career in bio-ethics. She plans to continue her education this fall at the University of Pennsylvania where she will pursue a master’s degree in bio-ethics in the Perelman School of Medicine.
 
“It has definitely been a humbling experience to be involved in undergraduate research that may lead to the development of an anti-cancer drug,” Castelblanco says. “I never dreamed at this point in my life I would be working in research that is this important.”  

Dr. DiPino leads the student researchers.

Dr. DiPino says as a scientist, he sees it as his job to serve as a mentor for students and help them get involved in worthwhile projects. “Most of us have a mentor who took us under their wing and got us involved in science. The most rewarding part of my work is mentoring students in biology,” Dr. DiPino says. “Here at Misericordia, we have a philosophy to involve students in undergraduate research to give them hands-on work in the lab and practical skills as well as an understanding of how to properly design and carry out experiments using the latest technology. The best way to learn science is by doing science. Misericordia students go from learning knowledge in the classroom to creating knowledge in the research laboratory.”
 
Bohn says the opportunity has been life changing. “Most students do lab work as part of their assignments,” Bohn says. “For us, being able to do this research in a Misericordia lab and try to discover something that hasn’t been discovered yet … something so important … it really sparks your curiosity and makes you want to work harder for it. Being able to help contribute to cancer research … what an incredible opportunity.”
 
Speaking from the heart, Sabatino agrees with her colleague. “When you think about doing this research and you are in here in the lab everyday, you think about how everyone knows someone who suffers from cancer. Being able to be a part of the future of this research is really incredible.” 
 
With Castelblanco and Sabatino graduating, sophomore biology major Jessica Moss ‘16, of Hunlock Creek, Pa., will be joining Bohn and Dr. DiPino on the PAK-2 research team in the summer.