Montana State University

MSU team publishes cell findings, notes implications for cancer treatment

August 5, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Ed Schmidt led a team of researchers that found a delivery route for high-energy electrons needed in cell division. The scientists noted possible implications for cancer treatment and published their results in the Journal of Cell Science. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Research conducted at Montana State University last summer has implications for cancer treatment and has been published in a major scientific journal.

The team that published its findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Cell Science included two undergraduate students, Dana van der Heide and Kristin Comstock, said Ed Schmidt, leader of the project in MSU's Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology. He added that it's unusual for undergraduates to co-author articles that run in scientific journals.

"I'm thrilled about it," van der Heide said. "It's something that I hadn't even thought about as a possibility when I was starting research last summer."

Comstock said, "It's awesome. Not very many people get that experience. To be published after 10 weeks is incredible."

Schmidt said it's also rare for any scientist to conduct research one summer and see it published the next summer.

But the research team did great work on this project funded by the National Institutes of Health, and produced great results, Schmidt said. The group also benefited from experiments that a former postdoctoral scientist, Elena Suvorova, set up before leaving MSU. Schmidt said the Journal of Cell Science was their first choice for publication, and editing was minimal.

"The moon and the stars aligned," Schmidt said.

The Journal of Cell Science is one of the top three or four journals in cell biology, Schmidt said. The researchers submitted there first because -- even though they studied cells in mouse livers -- their work has broad implications for cells in other mammals.

In order for any cell to divide, it has to make copies of all its DNA, Schmidt explained. That process is complicated and requires an enzyme called ribonucleotide reductase. It also requires high-energy electrons to run the reaction.

Scientists have been able to find the source of these electrons in all life forms except for animals, Schmidt said. The MSU researchers, however, found an electron delivery route in the mice they developed for their study.

The discovery has implications for cancer treatment, because some cancer drugs block those electron pathways, Schmidt said. Blocking an electron transport pathway can stop cancer cells from dividing. However, scientists now see that there are robust alternative pathways that might also need to be dealt with to achieve an effective block. The MSU study may lead to future studies looking for better combinations of cancer drugs, Schmidt said.

"We are really excited about this paper," Schmidt continued.

Other members of the research team were 2007 Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Utah; MaryClare Rollins, Carla Weisend and Elena Suvorova in the Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology at MSU; Jean Kundert in MSU's Animal Resources Center; and Gary Merrill at Oregon State University.

Capecchi and Merrill are long-time collaborators of his, Schmidt said. Capecchi is a pioneer in gene targeting. He and Schmidt developed the new line of mice that was used in MSU's research project. Merrill is an expert on the biochemical pathways involved.

Besides opening doors for new collaborations and additional funding, the paper "has also given some students a boost, and that's always kind of fun," Schmidt said.

Comstock and van der Heide both attended colleges in the Midwest and came to MSU through programs that allow undergraduate students to conduct research at universities for 10 weeks during the summer. Comstock came through a National Science Foundation program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates. van der Heide came through the Complex Biological Systems Summer Undergraduate Research Program, which was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. MSU has participated in such programs for at least 20 years, according to MSU records.

Comstock's job last summer was using fluorescent imaging to study liver cells in mice. van der Heide studied cell cycles to learn what proportions of the liver cells were in different stages of growth and replication.

Both students said they appreciated the opportunity to conduct research, work in Schmidt's lab and spend time in the Bozeman area. van der Heide said her school -- Oberlin College in Ohio -- offers research opportunities, but she is busy during the school year. A senior this fall, the biology major takes pre-med courses, works as a teacher's assistant and competes on the school swim team.

Conducting research at MSU gave her a sense for how useful research can be and how long it can take, van der Heide said. It also helped her see where her interests lie and opened up new opportunities. She is conducting research this summer at the University of Iowa.

"I think it was overall a really great experience," she said.

Comstock, who recently graduated from The College of St. Scolastica in Duluth, Minn., said MSU gave her her first opportunity to conduct research. She is now an emergency room scribe in the Minneapolis area and applying for medical school.

"I thought it was a great experience," Comstock said. "I learned so much in 10 weeks."

Mary Cloninger in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry -- director of one of several MSU programs that offer summer research opportunities for undergraduates -- said such programs have widespread benefits. They help students who come to MSU for the summer, MSU students who go elsewhere to conduct research for the summer, and the university as a whole.

Many of the participants who come to MSU attend small colleges that don't have graduate programs, instrumentation or other infrastructure necessary for research, Cloninger said. When the students have the opportunity to conduct research, it helps them see possibilities for their careers. It gives them more confidence in deciding if they want to enter industry immediately, attend graduate school or pursue other avenues.

Some students who conduct summer research at MSU end up attending graduate school at MSU. but that's not the biggest benefit for the university, Cloninger said.

"That's a nice bonus, but it's not the point," she said. "It's a large part of our mission.

"It allows us to bring in young people, young scientists, people who are early in their careers, and get them excited about research," Cloninger continued. "It's our mission and almost our service to the region to make sure that talented students are able to come here to do a research experience."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or