Doctors Steve and Hannah Alexander, the duo behind the Alexander Lab, have spent the past 26 years at the University of Missouri. The Alexander Lab, founded in 1987, focused on developmental biology until the late nineties. Since then, the lab has studied DNA repair and drug resistance in cancer cells. With their current work, they hope to contribute to our ability to successfully treat cancers of all types, by providing insights into the biological process by which tumors develop resistance to anticancer drugs.
Take a good, hard mental image of a long line of people stretched for blocks. If you expand the line to roughly 100,000, this is the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. The imbalanced patient-to-organ ratio leaves many to die while waiting their turn. In response, some researchers try to tap into animal organs to save human lives, but those organs do not always work.
Research in the University of Missouri’s Division of Animal Sciences may help solve this medical debacle by using genetic modification. When an organ goes from one animal to another (like to a human), preexisting antibodies in the human bind to the organ’s sugar molecules and kill the organ, making it useless. “When you take a pig cell and transfer it to a human, the molecule is immediately recognized as foreign,” explains MU’s Animal Science Professor, Randall Prather. “Within minutes you’ll get hyperacute rejection, and the cells will be destroyed.”
M. Heather Carver is framed by her clown shadow—a black mannequin head wearing a pink camouflage hat and red clown’s nose—as she joyfully begins to describe her place at MU. “I come from a background of performing,” the Associate Professor of Theatre offers. “As a means of studying something, we perform it.” As a way of studying autobiography, for example, Carver performs autobiography.
When asked to describe the field of comparative oncology, Carolyn Henry says, “You would probably get a different definition depending on who you ask that question, [but] when we think of comparative oncology here at the Vet School, we think of treating animals that develop cancer on their own just like people do and finding ways to treat that cancer better and that may translate into better treatments for people as well.” Henry’s interest in oncology began while she was working in private practice as a veterinarian. “It seemed like the cancer patients were the ones I found the most interesting and the most rewarding to treat,” she explains of her decision to pursue training and certification in veterinary oncology.
The Alexanders, whose lab originally studied developmental biology, describe how they were introduced to the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, which changed their course of their research to chemotherapy resistance.
Since its foundation in 1987, the Alexander Lab has shifted from its original focus on developmental biology; it now studies how cells become resistant to chemotherapy drugs.
The Alexanders describe how mutations give cancer cells a growth advantage and why physicians often treat cancer with multiple chemotherapy drugs.
Prather has contributed to research associated with modifying genes to produce healthy bacon. In a study involving the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, researchers transferred a gene known as fat-1 to fetal pig cells. The fat-1 gene creates an enzyme that converts omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, the type of fatty acid known to reduce heart disease and cancer. As a collaborator in the research, Prather cloned the pig fetal cells containing the gene that makes omega-3 fatty acids and creates pigs with their their own omega-3 fatty acids.
As a graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences, William Donald Thomas works in the area of molecular and protein biology. Specifically, his research—with mentor George P. Smith in the Phage Display Lab seeks to find peptides that bind to breast cancer cells in hopes of developing better diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
Thomas explains: “Right now, the imaging and treatment of cancer is pretty nonspecific. The hope is that we can make or discover molecules that are specific to cancer, because the current treatment for cancer basically just targets cells that grow fast and, in doing so, they make people sick. The whole motivation is to find something that can specifically target cancer cells, in this case, breast cancer cells.” As such, Thomas’ research involves cloning different proteins and selecting a protein that is over-expressed in breast cancer cells called ErbB2.
A typical week for Thomas actually begins the previous week, meeting with his adviser, planning experiments, and discussing problems encountered. “Right now my goal is to find peptides that bind to cancer cells, but that is going to take a lot of little steps. A lot of proteins are going to have to be made and designed. I spend a fair amount of time designing the experiments and then doing them.” When the experiments don’t work, Thomas must re-design them. “In a nutshell, I play with proteins all day,” he jokes. “Fundamentally, I’m studying protein to protein interactions, so that I can find things that could be used to bind breast cancer cells.”
“Cancer treatment, as it stands now, is like going at a very particular problem with a sledge hammer, when we need something more fine-tuned like a scalpel. Otherwise, we are making the patient sick by indiscriminately killing cells; the pain endured from cancer treatments can take its toll. We want to be able to increase the patient’s health and not decrease the quality of life.”
Whether their work seeks to counter domestic violence and ethnic genocide, identify cancer treatments, or employ literature and music to understand humanity, these MU faculty describe in their own words why this work is important to society.
Heather Carver describes herself as “a performance studies artist/scholar,” someone who investigates an issue through performance—“so we study autobiography, and we do autobiographical performance.” Carver teaches several kinds of creative writing, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, in adaptation and performance of literature for theatre and the screen. She also co-directs the Writing for Performance Program, which helps students adapt different kinds of writing for the stage or screen, including poetry, short stories, autobiography, or ethnography. And Carver serves as creator and artistic director of the Life and Literature Performance series to showcase original and adapted work by MU students for the stage.
With her background interest in women’s health, it was no surprise to find Carver collaborating with Elaine Lawless, MU Professor of English. After adapting some of the survivor stories for performance, in 2003 they formed the Troubling Violence Performance Project “to create a venue for people to communicate about intimate partner violence.” While they began performing stories from Lawless’ book, the stories soon emerged from elsewhere: “People starting coming up to us after the performances and asking if they could give us their stories,” many of which were then incorporated into subsequent performances. “If one out of every four women likely to suffer some kind of intimate partner abuse, then we need to really speak out. We don’t think we’re going to come in and perform and all violence is going to end. We just know that if people don’t talk about it…it’s going to be swept under the carpet.”
Since October of 2006, Carver has been developing Booby Prize, a comedy about the unfunny subject of breast cancer. “It’s a one-woman show featuring me [laughs],” and how she was “lucky” to be the one of every seven women to get the disease. Through Booby Prize, which is ever evolving, Carver is able to combine her interest in social activism, women’s health, and autobiography: “I decided that I could have breast cancer and still have a sense of humor, and still do my work. And so that’s when Booby Prize, you know, became born, the idea that—unfortunately—I won the prize. I won the Booby Prize, which you don’t want to win, you don’t want to be the 1 out of 7 who wins, but I won, and so that’s how I start off the performance.” Much of the performance features Carver performing actual stories that happened to her, infusing humor into the reality of her situation. At the conclusion of Booby Prize, Carver warns the audience against expecting closure and a happy ending. Despite the clean bill of health at her last medical checkup, the possibility of cancer returning lingers on, and so Carver reminds the audience, “I don’t have a pretty ending; my ending is still up in the air.” Among audience members, Carver has observed not only laughter and tears, as might be expected, but “people doing both at the same time, and not quite knowing what to do about it.” The thread that runs through Booby Prize—like Carver’s other scholarly and creative projects—is storytelling. Some of the stories are painful, and some are funny. Either way, Carver always tries “to keep it raw.”
One of Carver’s research areas involves “auto-performance”—a style that “brings the self to task in writing and in performance.” Whether this involves the
autobiography or autoethnography, “performative writing is very much a part of it, because you’re writing about your_self_.” Rather than taking other people’s perspectives and points of view, Carver tries to make clear her position from the get-go: “What I try to do in my performative writing is say, ‘this is about me,’… Because I really just want to write about what I’m experiencing for people to understand as a way of opening the conversation.”
A prevalent attitude about comparative oncology at MU is the concept of one medicine: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog, a cat, or a person. If you have cancer you’re fighting the same disease, and so let’s work together and find a cure for it no matter what the species.”
The veterinary oncology program at MU is growing very quickly: “Right now we’ve got four boarded veterinary oncologists, a veterinary radiation therapist, and residents and interns that are interested in oncology.” In September 2006, the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital opened a Cell Culture Lab that has made tumor cell research easier to conduct. The Barkley House, Henry’s brainchild, is in the first stages of becoming a reality.
Henry is also involved in a number of research projects outside of the COTC, focusing on spontaneously occurring cancer in animals, more specifically breast cancer, bone cancer, and bladder cancer. Chuckling, she remarks, “so I guess any tumor that starts with a ‘b’ is what I’m focused on right now.”
Henry gives a tour of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, including the Cell Culture Lab, the oncology ward, radiation therapy, and CT scans.
Under the umbrella of the National Cancer Institute, 13 universities were chosen to participate in the Comparative Oncology Trial Consortium, which conducts research trials to develop new and better cancer treatments.
Henry explains that “when we think of comparative oncology here at the Vet School, we think of treating animals that develop cancer on their own just like people do, finding ways to treat that cancer better, and translating our discoveries into better treatments for people as well.”
Some of the collaborative efforts Henry has been a part of include research with pharmaceutical companies, the MU Research Reactor, and the Veterinary Cancer Society.
Designing radiopharmaceuticals involves combining the right radioisotope with a targeting molecule, in order to take it to the tumor. The selection of the targeting molecule depends upon the type of cancer. In the case of breast cancer, for example, a hormone molecule might be used.