Countless researchers devote their lives to improving how we treat cancer, but few can say they started contributing to that goal even before getting their first degree. It’s an opportunity University of Alberta student Madison Wickenberg has grabbed with both lab-gloved hands. The third-year science student is part of a large new research project at the U of A that hopes to improve and broaden the use of immunotherapy to treat a variety of cancers.
Immunotherapy treatments harness the body’s immune system to attack tumours. A key step involves helping the body’s cancer-fighting T-cells recognize which cells are cancerous. Lead investigators Dr. Paul LaPointe, Dr. John Walker and Dr. Kristi Baker, and their students (including Wickenberg), are testing a new method of helping the body do just that.
“We’re using a drug that makes proteins in cancer cells degrade more quickly. That way [the proteins] present on the surface of the cell and our own immune system can recognize them and target them more easily,” says Wickenberg.
Wickenberg got involved in the project after approaching LaPointe, with whom she had taken a class, about research opportunities last summer. The timing was serendipitous — LaPointe had just received funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation for a three-year immunotherapy research project, including a locally designed clinical trial. The team started gathering data on a wide variety of fronts this past September. Wickenberg, specifically, is working on colon cancer, which typically doesn’t respond well to immunotherapy treatments.
“She’s been doing experiments to extend some of the things we’ve seen with breast cancer and melanoma cancer cell lines to colon cancer,” says LaPointe. “We want to try to use this approach to basically trick the cancer cells into showing themselves to the immune system.”
Immunotherapy treatments harness the body’s immune system to attack tumours. A key step involves helping the body’s cancer-fighting T-cells recognize which cells are cancerous.
The project is still in the preliminary phase, with researchers establishing proof of concepts and identifying various mechanisms within the cells. LaPointe says, within six to 12 months, they will have a massive amount of data with which to move forward into the clinical trial stage. He says for an undergraduate student to be able to contribute to a project with such real-world applications is pretty special.
“I think that makes it a unique experience for any undergrad because normally you would never get close to a project like that,” says LaPointe. “She’s picked up really well on the techniques and has generated some results, which is exciting.”
It’s Wickenberg’s first time working in a lab, and she is making the most of the opportunity, learning lab procedures and techniques like growing and splitting human cancer cell lines. An Edmonton native, Wickenberg says she developed a passion for understanding the human body at an early age.
“My mom actually has an autoimmune disease, so I’ve always been interested in the immune system and how it works,” says Wickenberg. “I’ve also always been interested in pursuing a career in medicine — that’s my ultimate goal after my undergrad.”
Wickenberg’s newly acquired lab experience should serve her well in that pursuit, but she says it has also given her an increased appreciation of the research process.
“It’s definitely given me a new perspective on how research actually works,” says Wickenberg. “To get one concrete piece of data can take three weeks. It shows you why research and progress can seem so slow, but also why it’s so important to be involved.”