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Hands-on Chemistry Course Has Students Taking on Rare Cancers

With graduation just around the corner, a few undergraduates finishing up a hands-on chemistry course will be taking very useful skills with them to the next stop on their career and education path. Jeff Field, PhD, a professor of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics, and the students in his Chemistry 495 class published a paper in the American Journal of Cancer Research last month, with funding from the Children’s Tumor Foundation. With robotic arms and moving trays to run automated chemical analyses, the class used advanced screening machines to quickly measure how effective dozens of cancer drugs are against cells found in a rare type of cancer called neurofibromatosis. 

Type 1 neurofibromatosis (NF1) affects mainly children, occurring in one in every 4,000 births. While NF1 is primarily known to cause tumors in the nervous system, some patients with NF1 are also prone to cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. The Nf1 gene - which is mutated in those suffering from neurofibromatosis - is also essential in endothelial cells, the cells that make up blood vessels. NF1 is considered an inherited neurological disorder, characterized by the tumors, attention deficits, and learning problems.

“The class’s work was highly successful in predicting the effects of real clinical trials for NF1,” Field said. “Our study could identify most of the drugs that were successful or unsuccessful in treating the tumors. Our new hits may predict successful treatments in the future.”

“Taking that course with Jeff was one of the best decisions I've made,” said Patrick Duggan, a Neurobiology and Biological Basis of Behavior double major who will graduate on May 15th. “His first few lectures gave an overview of the genetic disorder, neurofibromatosis, and the screening method that we would be using.”

Danny Lin, a dual bachelors and masters candidate in Bioengineering who is also graduating in May, said the course provided him with valuable hands-on experience in the field of cancer research, as well as exposure to the real-world technology. “It allowed me to utilize my knowledge and skills from previous courses, and to learn new things in a setting outside of the traditional classroom.” It also gave him insight into what his next career step would look like. After graduating, Lin is set to work for AllSourcePPS as an associate engineer in the company's manufacturing division purifying proteins for making new drugs.

And it’s not just budding biomedical scientists who could benefit from the class’s findings: Michael Granato, PhD, a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, developed a zebrafish model of the learning and memory components of the disorder. In the past, the lab of Jon Epstein, MD, now the executive vice dean and chief scientific officer at Penn Medicine, has also worked on the cardiovascular problems associated with NF1.

“We could rapidly identify drugs to test in the zebrafish NF1 model,” Field said. “Our approach could also be adapted for precision medicine. We could screen patient samples to identify which drugs work for different individuals.”

David Schultz, the technical director of the High-throughput Screening Core – which provides the Penn community with professional screening services – collaborated with Field on the course. “This is a first step towards a personalized approach to this devastating disease,” said Sara Cherry, PhD, an associate professor of Microbiology, scientific director of the Core, and director of the Chemogenomics Discovery Program in the Penn Center for Precision Medicine. “The Core played a fundamental role in this project and it fit nicely with our other efforts to directly screen patient cells to direct clinical trials. The students’ findings were an essential first step for neurofibromatosis and are very provocative.”

No matter where this the class’s research leads, it is obvious that this next generation of scientists has clearly benefited. “My father is actually a chemist so I guess I've always had it in my genes,” said Duggan. He adds that the mentoring he received from classmates, Field’s graduate students, Schultz, and other faculty members teaching in the course is what “really made the experience” for him, which will stay with him long after the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance fade. In a few months he will be working at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a research associate studying drug resistance in particularly hard-to-treat cancers. 

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