Under the skin
Mizzou senior presents breakthrough melanoma research at national event
A green laser flashes, and senior biological engineering major Christine O’Brien intently watches the process through red-tinted safety glasses. She’s researching a new method to catch cancerous melanoma cells before tumors appear in the body. Working with Professor John Viator, she is conducting research that would advance early detection of cancer and greatly improve patients’ chances of survival.
O'Brien was chosen to present her findings at the Council on Undergraduate Research's prestigious Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C. this spring. She's one of 60 applicants selected from a nationwide pool of more than 270 for the event. (She and Kyle Ervin, a Mizzou civil engineering major, are the only students chosen from the state of Missouri.)
It’s a path the St. Louis native has been on for years. Both of O’Brien’s parents are professors, so she learned the importance of lab work early. She transferred to Mizzou from the University of Illinois, which didn’t offer the opportunities she sought, and immediately got involved in MU labs. After seeing Viator’s presentation on research in one of her classes, she asked whether he had any jobs. "He said, 'Yeah, come on. I’ll give you a project,'" says O’Brien, and their work began in September 2008.
“I really appreciate the lengths our professors go to to help us inside and outside the classroom, beefing up our résumés, trying to get us involved with as many things as possible,” O’Brien says. Viator encouraged her to apply for the Posters on the Hill competition.
Taking on cancer
While her research focuses directly on melanoma (skin cancer), the technology O’Brien uses also can be applied to breast cancer, prostate cancer, malaria and anything else with a pigment. A blood sample is taken from a patient and put in a centrifuge. White blood cells and melanoma cells separate into a layer, which can be run through the system. The white blood cells lack pigment, so they are unaffected by the photoacoustic wave created by the laser. In O’Brien’s work, the melanoma cells (which do have pigment) rapidly expand when hit with the short pulse of laser light.
Melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, can be treated by the removal of the tumor from a patient’s skin. But if it has spread in the body, the patient usually has to wait a few months to find out whether a tumor has grown elsewhere in the body.
O’Brien’s research could help eliminate that waiting period. With early detection, doctors could determine whether cancer therapies should be started immediately instead of waiting for tumors to develop, thus increasing the rate of survival. With the rate of melanoma doubling since the 1980s, due in large part to ultraviolet tanning and unprotected exposure to the sun, O’Brien’s research could have a significant impact on public health.
Undergrads in the lab
The research will be a strong cap to O’Brien’s résumé as she completes her undergraduate degree in the fall and works toward an eventual PhD in biomedical engineering. Conducting hands-on lab research as an undergraduate student is an unusual opportunity, she says.
“Usually schools want post-docs or PhD students because, obviously, they’re there longer and [professors] have longer to train them,” O’Brien says. “At Mizzou, our teachers are really interested in getting undergrads involved in their laboratories. It’s really rare at big research institutions.”
When asked about the highlight of her research experience at MU, O’Brien could list numerous experiences and honors, such as the Posters on the Hill recognition, her trip to San Francisco in January to present at the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers conference, or her presentation at the Missouri Nano Frontiers Conference.
But O'Brien says one opportunity stands out as her favorite: “Training new students in lab skills and teaching them a foundation so that they can become independent researchers themselves.”
Learn more about Mizzou researchers' work during Missouri Life Sciences Week, which runs through April 17.