Hawn’s participation in this project has been made possible by the support of the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI), in partnership with Project SEED, which pairs high school students interested in science and medicine with local research scientists, including many from the Indiana University School of Medicine. This summer, 20 internships are supported by Indiana CTSI, a statewide collaboration among IU, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame, and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to accelerate medical innovation and education in Indiana.
“Never in my life, not even in college, did I think I would be working with cancer cells,” said Hawn, joking that whenever her family hears about what she’s working on, they say she’s a genius. “It’s a wonderful program because you don’t just sign up and go to the lab. You really learn about the work going on.”
Hawn is working in the lab of Hiremagalur Jayaram, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at IU School of Medicine and a senior scientist at the Richard Roudebush VA Medical Center. Jayaram is investigating the chemical pathways resulting in cellular death caused by two promising new drugs: tiazofurin and benzamide riboside.
In order to target cancer cells while also bypassing healthy tissue, Jayaram’s lab infuses fat molecules, or liposomes, containing folic acid, with these drugs, which are only absorbed by cancerous tissue. Certain cancer cells, including colorectal and cervical cancer cells, have greater numbers of folate receptors than normal healthy cells. The liposomes serve as a vehicle for introducing the cancer-fighting drugs into the cancer cell without affecting healthy cells.
Although Hawn is only working with cellular material, Jayaram said his project will explore using specially engineered viruses — reprogrammed to only attack cancerous tissue — in order to further refine his affront on the disease.
Therapies that only target cancer cells present a vast improvement over traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, which targets the body’s tissue indiscriminately, said Hawn, whose laboratory activities include performing cytotoxicity tests, which reveal precisely how toxic the drugs delivered by liposome are to the cancer cells; “cell blotting,” a chemical analysis by which the specific pathways to cell death are revealed; as well as the preparation of liposomes and other minor laboratory tasks. The goal is to predict the absolute minimum amount of drug that would be required to effectively stamp out the disease in a patient, she says.
Students benefit from the program by learning about the precision and dedication required to succeed in a professional laboratory environment, said Linda Monroe, a chemistry teacher at Warren Central High School who pointed Hawn toward the Indiana CTSI-sponsored program this spring.
“I encourage all my ‘A’ students to ‘take it to the next level,’ and set themselves apart from the crowd, by participating in science activities after school or research projects in the summer,” she said. “A scientist must work very hard to collect data, analyze it and then present it. Rachel understands that the grades earned in high school do matter, and it will open up doors as she continues her education.”
In addition to working in the laboratory, student interns also participate in weekly seminar sessions with their lab co-workers, during which they present on special topics related to their research, said Jayaram, who has been a supporter of the Project SEED Program for 15 years, including those years in which it has received support from the Indiana CTSI.
“In other words, this is not a free ride here,” he says. “We make it clear this is a place to learn, not just to spend a summer vacation. But all these kids are so enthusiastic; they’re hungry to learn.”
Several former students have seen their names included in prestigious medical journals due to their contributions, he said, noting that many have gone on to careers as physicians, researchers, pharmacists and nursing doctorates, including a majority who’ve stayed in Indiana.
Praveen Kusumanchi, a postdoctoral fellow at the IU School of Medicine, who serves as Hawn’s primary laboratory mentor, said the summer program serves a critical function by getting local students excited about real laboratory science at a young age.
“You should have fun when you do science,” he said. “You should get interested and involved yourself.”
Hawn, who hopes to contribute to the project again next summer, agreed.
“I love this lab; I love the people, we’re like a little family,” she said, noting that although they work hard, they also have fun and that the hours frequently fly by. “The Indiana CTSI is amazing for supporting this program. They should get a ‘thumbs up,’ every day.”
To hear Hawn interviewed about her experience with the SEED-CTSI internship program on Kid’s Count from the Indiana Youth Institute, visit www.iyi.org/resources/audio/Student-Research-Initiative-8222010.mp3.