Through her research at Wichita State University, assistant chemistry professor Moriah Beck hopes to understand how cancer cells spread and become fatal.
Her research involves the analysis of a critical protein called palladin, which is produced in large amounts in highly mobile cells. The question: How does palladin stimulate cancer cells to spread?
"Ultimately we hope to translate this knowledge into new strategies for detecting and eliminating cells that are undergoing the transition to metastasis before they have the opportunity to migrate throughout the body and eventually cause death," Beck said.
Beck isn't doing this vital research alone. Her team includes WSU graduate students Ritu Gurung, Joe Brungardt and Ravi Vattepu; and undergraduate students Ty Dille, Erik Wong, Chamitha Weeraman, Nicholas Wasinger and Crystal Ratcliff-Amarasekara.
Scientists from Kansas State University, University of Kansas, University of Virginia, Washington University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are also collaborating with Beck's team.
Beck, who came to Wichita State last year from UNC-Chapel Hill, was awarded two grants for her research in 2011.
"As a structural biologist/biochemist, I bring a complementary set of scientific tools to help understand this novel protein's function," she said.
Valuable student experience
Beck began her research on the palladin protein during her post-doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she collaborated with Carol Otey, who discovered palladin in 2000.
Because the protein is a recent discovery, not much is known about its function in either normal or metastatic cells. But there is a growing body of evidence linking palladin to highly metastatic cancers, Beck said, namely pancreatic and breast.
Cancer metastasis starts with the invasive movement of cells into surrounding tissues, allowing the tumor cells to spread to other organs. This migration is primarily driven by a protein called actin – one of the most abundant proteins in our cells.
"We hope to define how actin is controlled by palladin at the molecular level and how that control is involved in increased cell motility," Beck said. "Establishing the role of palladin will enable us to better appreciate the role of palladin in cancer metastasis."
Beck said that along with start-up funds from the university and grant opportunities, the most important resource to her project is the ability to attract motivated students interested in carrying out biochemical research.
The students taking part in the project benefit greatly from their involvement, Beck said. For graduate students, working in the lab makes up a large part of their dissertation research. And for undergraduate students, most also get class credit for independent research.
"I think that this type of research experience is very valuable for providing the students with an authentic lab experience -- one where all the experiments aren't going to work the first time, and you don't just follow a protocol," she said. "They learn valuable skills in troubleshooting, organization, planning and communication.
Beck said this type of experience will serve the students well in any career, but it is especially relevant for jobs in the scientific sector.
"I think they leave the lab with a great deal more confidence in their abilities as well as in their career choice," she said.
For more information on Beck's research, go to www.becklaboratory.com/Moriah/Home.html.