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Research of Glioblastoma Cells by IMSA

WRITTEN BY: Shreya Mahesh

Glioblastoma is one of the most common types of brain cancer. The Glioblastomas are grade 4 brain tumors, which means that they contain the most defective cells, making them the most aggressive. These tumors develop primarily in the frontal and temporal lobes. Currently, there is no cure or Glioblastoma, and the median length of survival after diagnosis is 15-18 months. A new Student Inquiry and Research class of IMSA students have begun research on Glioblastoma cells with Dr. Anjur. Here is an interview with a student, and Dr. Anjur herself. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but everything printed has been approved by Dr. Anjur.

What are you and the students researching in this SIR?

“Actually, the students are doing the research, and I am directing them. I came up with the idea that students could work with Glioblastoma multiforme cell lines, the most aggressive kind of brain tumor/cancer known to man. IMSA is able to purchase Biosafety Level 1 cell lines because those are safest for us to work with. We cannot work with safety levels above that because we are not set up for it and our students are under 18. I chose 3 cell lines of Glioblastoma cells to work with from patients in their late fifties.”

Why did you choose to focus on glioblastoma cells?

“There has not been a lot of research done about the effects of different compounds on Glioblastoma. Furthermore, the number of recorded cases involving Glioblastoma cells have been increasing in recent decades due to the advancement of technology, such as imaging. In the past, symptoms that people believed to just be headaches would have been passed off as nothing. Now that imaging techniques are becoming more advanced, there is more knowledge on the different types of disorders not only in the brain, but also in the body. Also, like I said, there hasn’t been much research conducted on Glioblastoma cells, so it’s interesting to involve the students to possibly make new discoveries. This may seem like a long shot, but if we continue this SIR for years to come, we hope to have meaningful and useful discoveries.”

Do you hope to continue this SIR next year?

“Yes, I do. I think it would be really interesting to see what we discover.”

What are the students able to research?

“I was offering four different strands. The first one involved observing the effects of natural compounds on Glioblastoma cell behavior. There is some evidence that in people who had had surgery to remove Glioblastoma cells, the recurrence of the cancer cells has been prevented from recurring through the consumption of various herbs and spices such as curcumin, boswellia, and other natural compounds. The second strand involved the identification of specific proteins in Glioblastoma cells that were responsible for increased cell growth. I had the option available for students to test for Cathepsin D in the cells. Cathepsins are proteins have been found in abundance in Glioblastoma cells. I thought that if students were able to quantitatively compare the amount of protein in the different cell lines and possibly discover why one cell line was growing faster than the other. The rate of growth of Glioblastoma is known to vary among patients, but not much is known as to why. For some people, the tumor may progress very quickly, while in others it progresses slower. So depending on what kind of tumor they have, there could be different rates of growth. Students in the third strand would be researching specific factors that make certain cell lines grow faster or slower than the others, through studying Cathepsin D. They would compare the cell lines we had purchased to gather evidence and make a conclusion. I also had opened up a fourth option to the students, where essentially, if they had a feasible idea, they could research that as well, as long as it was within our limits and budget.”

Where in the process is the SIR currently?

“We started out with students reading literature and studies done in the past revolving around glioblastoma cells because they not only needed to be able to understand the science, but also discover which topic they wanted to proceed with in the SIR. Right now, students have chosen what exactly they want to research, written up a literature review and are beginning the process of conducting their experiment. The groups are all in different stages right now, depending on how much work they are putting into it, but hopefully, by the beginning of next semester, their experiments will become more routine. It takes a while for the students to be comfortable with tissue culture and how to handle cells, which are all new things to the students.”

What was the process of initially teaching the students how to work with the cells?

“Students were first given a background on Glioblastoma and we discussed the research and treatment options available. Students then got some practice with tissue culture using the cells that we already had until the Glioblastoma cells came in from ATTC. Students learned how to culture cells and split them when they overgrew. Culturing cells involves making appropriate media, adding cells and incubating them at 37 degrees C. The Glioblastoma cells are often slow growing, taking anywhere between 3-5 days to grow well. They are also adherent cells, meaning they stick to the bottom of the flask, so if the cells are found floating on the top, it means they are dead. Students learned how to make their sterile media and added compounds to it, such as penicillin and streptomycin, to prevent contamination, as well as additional nutrients to allow the cells to grow. They also learned how to renew the cells– give the cells new media, so that they are not swimming in their metabolites and toxins in the used media. When it comes to the point where there is an overabundance of cells in a flask, the cells need to be split and given new media. Students also learned how to count cells using a hemocytometer [a counting-chamber device]. Students also learned how to use the MTT Assay, which is a colorimetric assay used to tell how many cells are present in the culture. So, taking into account the need for maintenance of the cells, the students generally need to come in twice a week, always giving them something to work on!”

Have you come across any hurdles in this SIR?

“Unfortunately, some of the groups’ media had a mold contamination problem a couple weeks ago, so we had to clean everything out. Now, the students are testing their media to see how their sterile technique may have affected this. One group was not affected by the mold contamination, which probably meant that their technique was correct.”

Being an on-campus SIR, how often do students come in to work?

“Student come in once or twice a week outside of their I-day to check on their culture cells. It is not limited to just the I-day, which is a large benefit of having an on-campus SIR.”

What do you hope to learn from this SIR?

“Their research could be extrapolated to treatment options for Glioblastoma. It is a very aggressive brain tumor, but the original symptoms can range anywhere from headaches to seizures. Normally, patients receive treatment that aims to relieve pressure in the brain because the cells are growing abnormally at a fast rate. Some treatments include puncturing holes in the skull to release the fluid in the brain and sometimes surgeons remove the Glioblastoma cells themselves. Chemotherapy and other forms of drugs are also used to treat Glioblastoma cells. What I hope the students achieve is some sort of experience with tissue culture, working with cells, and possibly discover an “easier” way to treat Glioblastoma cells. There is also the aspect of the students attempting to replicate what they found in the literature they researched, as well as discovering something new.”

Were you familiar with working with cancer cells previously?

“I have not worked with cancer cells before, but I have worked with tissue culture, such as bovine and human tissues, which I used to research metabolic diseases.”

How do you find working with the students?

“It’s fun and very hands-on. I really enjoy working in the lab and it is especially interesting because I am not lecturing the students or telling them step by step what to do. The students have the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn things they never could in a typical classroom setting. Also, the students are basically controlling their own experiment. Although I have been directing them and guiding them through certain techniques, it is now time to step back and see what they find!”

Looking at a students point of view, the following is an interview with Prarthana Prashanth, a junior in Dr. Anjur’s SIR. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but everything printed has been approved by Prarthana. Prarthana Prashanth, a junior here at IMSA is a part of Dr. Anjur’s SIR. She and her partner, Monika Narain, are “investigat[ing] which ayurvedic herbs and spices are most effective in treating Glioblastoma cells.” Among the excitement of working with cancer cells, she enjoys the flexible schedule of it. She and her partner are able to “come in almost every day of the week during our free mods so during our actual SIR day, we are only there from 10-2, whereas other SIR students may be spending their entire day on their SIR.” When asked why she chose to focus on herbs and spices, she responded, “things like this could make a significant difference in the lives of those diagnosed with Glioblastoma. Also, people have been using [herbs and spices] for centuries, but much has yet to be discovered.” The advancement of Glioblastoma cell research has reached IMSA students and we hope to continue to develop these discoveries in the future.

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