Endometrial and breast cancer are two of the most common cancers in the United States, and tumor metastasis accounts for thousands of deaths every year. Southwestern students Elliot Hershberg, Class of 2018, and Sid Pradeep, Class of 2017, are engaged in a Summer Collaborative Opportunities and Experiences (SCOPE) project working alongside Professor of Biology Maria Todd, Ph.D., looking at what potentially causes cancer to spread throughout the body.

“Both Elliot and Sid are passionate about molecular biology and curious as to the mechanisms that underlie critical cellular processes,” says Todd. “This summer, they are investigating how the disruption of one of these processes—the formation and maintenance of cell-to-cell connections—may contribute to the development of endometrial and breast cancer.”

Metastasis of cancer cells requires they break their connections to one another in order to move through the bloodstream to a secondary organ. Todd, Pradeep, and Hershberg are investigating how tight junctions, a specific type of cell-to-cell connection, may be destabilized in endometrial and breast cancer cells, and in turn, contribute to cancer progression.

“Endometrial and breast cancer cells will be compared with normal cells of the same tissue type for the levels of three major tight junction proteins: claudin-3, claudin-4, and occludin, to determine if any of the proteins are produced at abnormally high levels,” says Todd.

Small interference ribonucleic acid (siRNA) will be used to suppress the abnormally elevated levels of the protein(s) in the endometrial and breast cancer cells in order to compare the effect of elevated versus normal levels of each protein upon the in vitro migration (movement) and invasiveness of the cancer cells.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish this summer is developing techniques in the lab to manage the level of suppression of particular tight junction genes, so we can do experiments with different ranges of expression levels,” says Hershberg. “We’re playing with one gene (at a time) and seeing what happens at varying levels of that, and how it affects these cancer cells that we’re growing.”

“We also take an active part in all of the data analysis that we get from this, which is really neat because I know a lot of peers who I went to high school with, who are biology majors, pre-med track—and have not had an opportunity to take part in this kind of research, let alone get into the analysis part, so it’s really a unique experience,” says Pradeep.

Research into tight junction disruption in cancer has also been relatively understudied, particularly in endometrial cancer, and little data has been published. The team is working diligently to uncover notable findings, and is hopeful to co-author published work when they finish.

“Elliot and Sid are two of the most enthusiastic, reflective, hard-working and, most importantly, detail-oriented students with whom I have worked in the past 15 years,” says Todd. “I am learning from them every bit as much as they are learning from me and I look forward to continuing our collaboration beyond SCOPE into the academic year.”