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According to the American Breast Cancer Society, there are more than 1.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today. Thanks to medical advances, the five-year survival rate after early stage diagnosis and treatment is more than 90 percent.

Biology majors I-Lee Hwa ’06 (Buck Hill Falls, Pa.), Michael McCormack ’07 (Hagerstown, Md.), Chris Sweitzer ’07 (Jackson, N.J.), Benjamin Kaplan ’07 (Warwick, R.I.), and Aviva Goel ’08 (Maharashtra, India) have been conducting extensive research that may improve those statistics.

Under the guidance of Shyamal K. Majumdar, Kreider Professor of Biology, the students have been using different combinations of several anti-cancer drugs on various mouse and human cancer cell types including mouse breast cancer cells to observe which agent produces the most favorable results. Their goal was to determine if combinations of the drugs work better than one agent alone.

“It’s a rather complex research project,” says Majumdar, who has been working with students on similar research for the past few years. “There is no end to research; however, we have been doing quite well.”

The team focused on Tamoxifen, Anastrozole, and Raloxifene, three breast cancer drugs; Carboplatin, an anticancer agent used to treat various neoplastic conditions; Taxol, a broad spectrum anticancer drug; and Gleevec, which is used to treat Chronic Myeloid Leukemia.

“Basically, the students test each drug individually and then a combination of two drugs at a time on each cancer cell type. The goal is to compare the effectiveness of each agent alone and in combination on specific cancer cells,” he says. “The students use appropriate bioassays using modern research tools.”

Because the combinations number in the hundreds, the research is more time consuming and extensive than is typical at the undergraduate level. Each student has specific responsibilities.

“The research students receive appropriate training and I find them dependable and motivated,” Majumdar stressed.

“I mainly worked with Gleevec, Carboplatin, and Tamoxifen and tested their effects in combination and singularly on mouse breast cancer cells,” McCormack says. “The work has not only been rewarding, but is very hands-on and I know it will help me in the future.”

Hwa has worked for the past four semesters with various types of anti-cancer agents. She used scanning electron microscopy, fluorescence microscopy, multi-channel bioassay plate reader, and Beckman coulter counter to compare the differential effects of various anticancer drugs on mouse breast cancer cells and erythroleukemia cells, as well as on human cervical carcinoma cells.

“Many of my prospective employers have been surprised that I have actually had the experience to work on cancer research in a lab setting,” Hwa says. “I think the smaller atmosphere at Lafayette, combined with Professor Majumdar’s philosophy, has helped many of the students who conducted research under him.”

“There are many variables,” she continues. “These make the research complex, but also allow for new findings to come across that may have not been tested before.”

Recent findings on the effects of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene make this research timely and relevant in the research community. Though Tamoxifen is proven to treat breast cancer, it also increases the risk of developing uterine cancer, blood clots, and cataracts.

“The study shows that using a combination of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene may help treat breast cancer while also keeping the probability of a woman developing the adverse conditions lower,” Majumdar says.

He and his research students will initiate Tamoxifen and Raloxifene combination studies on mouse and human breast cancer cells beginning this summer.

Planning to attend medical school, McCormack believes the research experience will be beneficial as he continues his education.

“The way he [Majumdar] is able to work with his students is great,” he says. “He not only makes sure that he guides us, but allows us to have our own responsibilities within the research, which is important in development.”

Hwa will seek employment as a medical researcher. She says her time working with Majumdar and fellow students has been fulfilling.

“Allowing us the responsibility in our research is key,” she says. “However, if we are ever in need, he is always there to make sure we have the proper guidance.”

McCormack agrees that Lafayette provides an optimal environment for undergraduate research.

“I have friends who attend much larger schools and they are amazed with the quality of research I perform at Lafayette,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been able to have this much experience if I were to have gone anywhere else.”

According to Hwa, Lafayette secured several pieces of state-of-the-art research equipment for Majumdar’s laboratory with a donation from one of his former research students Roger Newton ’72, a co-developer of the cholesterol-reducing drug, Lipitor.

“The equipment we used to do research on was a bit dated,” Hwa explains. “Now, we have some of the best and that is thanks to Roger Newton.”

Majumdar has been publishing research papers with his students in a steady fashion and expects to submit the team’s research for publication to scholarly journals in the near future.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News