March 19, 2012

Biology Professor Bob Kurt Works to Unlock the Mysteries of the Immune System

Professor Robert Kurt

Professor Robert Kurt

Some say ignorance is bliss. But for Bob Kurt, associate professor of biology, what is not known is a doorway to discovery, especially when unlocking the mysteries of the immune system and its effects on cancerous tumors.

Since 2000, Kurt has secured more than $1 million in grants to chart new directions in understanding cancer, specifically tumors of the breast. The most recent grant, $273,271 from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, came in mid-January. This funding will help Kurt and student researchers discover how the immune system interacts with specific receptors on tumor cells.

“A student from a few years ago asked the simple question: Do tumor cells express toll-like receptors? These receptors are the immune system’s first line of defense,” he says. “The logic of this was a eureka moment.”

Working with students, Kurt found that manipulating these receptors both inhibited and grew tumors. The latest grant will cover studies into how a signaling pathway channeled through this mechanism and another protein, Myd88, contributes to tumor growth.

Immunology drew Kurt’s interest when he was a student because of the field’s burgeoning, ever-changing core of knowledge.

“I really wanted to understand how the immune system protects you. Although I did OK in classes, I didn’t get it, and I really, really wanted to understand it,” he says.

That understanding came through an unexpected venue during his post-doc work when he was offered an opportunity to teach as an adjunct at the University of Portland.

“I realized when I was teaching that I came to understand immunology more,” says Kurt. “As a teacher, you can’t just memorize it; you have to understand it. I liked that.”

The revelation set Kurt on a path toward the combination of teaching and basic science at the collegiate level rather than simply pursuing clinical studies. He believes the pairing allows for more nimble corrections to existing ideas when fellow scientists publish new information in the field.

Kurt believes also that not all answers are found in one discipline alone. As Peter C.S. d’Aubermont, M.D. ’73 Director of the Health and Life Sciences program, he strives to bring knowledge from faculty and students in other programs to bear on pressing health problems. He and Chun Wai Liew, associate professor of computer science, teach Modeling-Based Applications to Biology, combining the best of computer science with biology to model living systems, which may improve understanding of Kurt’s cancer studies.

This interdisciplinary approach to learning further fuels Kurt’s passion for educating undergrads, which is why he chose the more intimate program of Lafayette over the narrower focus of a larger university.

“Students here work with professors and get to do lab work. I believe students learn more because of this,” he says. “They are often in charge of their very own research project.”

He cites a recent study co-authored with Kurt Yaeger ’11 on nanoparticle vaccines for cancer, with help coming from the chemistry and chemical & biomolecular engineering departments. All told, Kurt has co-authored 20 published articles with Lafayette students, a rarity in other undergraduate programs.

“Research takes students out of the textbook and shows them how the information in that textbook came to be known. Then they can go back to research articles and gain a new, greater perspective and can determine what an investigator did right or wrong,” he explains. “Dissecting what is valid and what is not is important in cancer studies.”

“Immunology is always changing,” adds Kurt, who has been honored with the Carl R. and Ingeborg Beidleman Research Award and the Delta Upsilon Distinguished Mentoring and Teaching Award. “One of the most fun things about teaching it is asking students why something works this way—or why does this happen—and they will try to answer. But the truth is we just don’t know yet.”