USF molecular medicine student’s Ah ha! moment helps push ahead cancer cell research

Science is full of precision and vigilance. But sometimes, there are subtleties that present themselves that get ignored, pushed aside for the drive to stay on task or to stick with the parameters of a hypothesis.

Michele Parry, a student in the Masters of Molecular Medicine Pre-Professional Program at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, was working for the former when she experienced the latter. It was an “ah ha!” moment that ended up being a key finding for why certain genes of cancer cells mutate, while others don’t.

Molecular Medicine student Michele Parry.

Michele Parry.

 

Parry volunteered in the lab of George Blanck, PhD, professor of molecular medicine, who was studying how the size of a gene’s protein coding region affects it’s the likelihood of becoming mutated. While combing over screen after screen of data – spreadsheets, graphs, and countless lists – she spotted a trend: larger genes are more frequently mutated than smaller ones, and in particular genes encoding cytoskeletal proteins.

“She spotted something that I didn’t and, thanks to that, we were able to run with it,” said Dr. Blanck, whose work looks into the nuances of genes and who pushes to fill the pipeline with talented biomedical sciences students.

The gene mutation work warranted publication, for which Parry was first author. It’s unusual for master’s students to be first author of published research, but Parry’s story is a good example of the experiences students in the USF master’s program can have, Dr. Blanck said.

“This is what master’s students in our program can do,” Dr. Blanck said.  “The role of the student in research is becoming more apparent. Nurturing that experience for a student researcher is directly connected to our mission of teaching.”

Titled “Big genes are big mutagen targets: A connection to cancerous, spherical cells?” in the September 2014 edition of Cancer Letters – the publication resulted in funding for new research looking into how the shape of cancer cells (round versus flat) affects drug resistance.

Dr. Blanck and Wade Sexton, MD, associate professor in the USF Department of Oncologic Sciences and a bladder cancer specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center, were awarded the Anna Valentine Award by Moffitt Cancer Center for new work titled “Cytoskeletal protein related coding region mutations in bladder cancer.”

“Cancers cell have unique characteristics and their shape may affect whether or not they are resistant to drugs,” said Parry.

Parry has a bachelor’s degree in biology and wants to be a physician. Specifically, she wants to be an oncologist. She’s driven to understand the difficult science and realizes she’s lucky to pick it up so fast.

“I’m happy that I’m educated and can understand a lot of this,” she said. “And tutoring the master’s students really helps me cement the molecular biology concepts. We’ll see if I feel the same way as a medical student.”

Parry applied to medical school once and was told to strengthen her resume to increase her likelihood of acceptance.

So, strengthen it she did. Since first applying to medical school in 2012, she has graduated with her master’s degree earning a 4.0 GPA, she now works in Dr. Blanck’s lab and has been published as first author, she is an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College, and she is the graduate teaching assistant for the master’s program.

“This was supposed to be my year off,” she joked. “But I needed to do all of this to strengthen my candidacy and to prove I could excel at the graduate level.”

Was that “ah ha!” moment proof of her abilities? Parry describes it more as a chance to contribute to promising cancer research.

“It makes me feel valuable,” she said, “and gives me a sense of gratitude.”

 

Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Office of Communications