Biological Sciences receive NIH Funding to Study Cancer Drug Resistance

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

For students going into the medical research field, having a chance to learn, succeed, fail and be inspired under the supervision of an accomplished researcher during their education is a priceless experience. This experiential learning would not be possible without outside funding, and now, students in Manabu Kurokawa’s lab can elevate their efforts thanks to a grant awarded to the group. 

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Manabu Kurokawa, Ph.D., assistant professor in Kent State University’s Department of Biological Sciences, has earned recognition and funding for his team’s groundbreaking research surrounding drug resistance in breast cancer patients. 

About a year ago, Kurokawa’s team published their findings related to lipid metabolism and the role it plays in drug resistance in a certain type of breast cancer, HER2 positive breast cancer, which makes up 20-25% of breast cancer cases. 

“What we saw was when cancer cells begin to be resistant to the first line of therapy, they start accumulating lots of lipids,” Kurokawa said. “We then saw that when you prevent that process, the cancer cells die.”  

Based on this discovery, Kurokawa submitted his research proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was selected for a Research Enhancement Award, also known as an R15 grant. The grant’s purpose is to support meritorious research, expose students to research and strengthen the research environment of the institution at undergraduate-focused universities like Kent State. 

The funding will allow Kurokawa and his team to further understand how lipid metabolism impacts cancer cell resistance to different treatments. Kurokawa plans to experiment with  different diets to find how the diet factor can slow down or speed up drug resistance. 

“We know that the majority of lipids are from the food we eat,” Kurokawa said. “The question is, is a high-fat diet really bad for drug resistance, and can we use a low-fat diet to slow down drug resistance and the growth of cancer cells?” 

Photo of Kurokawa's research team pre-pandemic

Photo of Kurokawa's research team pre-pandemic

Eric Takacs and Harley Moser, both undergraduate molecular cellular biology students, work in Kurokawa’s lab and contribute to drug resistance research. Takacs, a junior, works with cell lines by testing how various breast cancer cell lines react to different drugs. 

"My goal is to support past research that shows a relationship between a particular tumor suppressor genotype and cancer patient prognosis," Takacs said. “We know how some tumor suppressors interact and regulate cell growth at the molecular level, but we can’t automatically assume what drugs to give which patient based on what cancer genotype they have.”

The research in Kurokawa’s lab goes beyond breast cancer. Student researchers are also learning more each day about issues of drug resistance that can pertain to other conditions. 

“The work we’re doing is pertinent to practically all forms of cancer,” Takacs said. “Cancer is a very smart disease, one of the smartest diseases we’ve encountered, because it can resist drugs with mechanisms we have yet to fully understand. When we find something out about breast cancer, that informs our strategy for better understanding other types of cancer too.”

Moser and Takacs say that Kurokawa’s lab is a unique and welcoming environment encouraging students to fail and learn through their research. Both plan to attend graduate school, and they believe that Kurokawa’s lab has prepared them to further their education after Kent State. 

“Everyone is super friendly and welcoming,” Moser, a senior, said. “It’s really important to have a research environment like that. We have a lot of independence, and it’s really exciting when you get to see for yourself when your experiments finally work, and it’s taught me patience and many of the other skills that I will need for graduate school.”

To Kurokawa, the NIH grant is more than just research funding; it gives Kent State well-deserved recognition for ongoing research projects in the Department of Biology.

“Kent State is a great place with so many great students. To me, it’s a hidden gem when it comes to research,” Kurokawa said. “Because Kent State doesn’t have a medical school, our medical research can sometimes be overlooked, but we have great things going on here with excellent facilities and students.” 

Find more information on Kurokawa’s lab and ongoing research.

Learn more about the NIH Research Enhancement Award.

POSTED: Tuesday, April 6, 2021 - 11:09am
UPDATED: Monday, April 12, 2021 - 9:18am
WRITTEN BY:
Katie Null