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USM Biology Students Receive Top BioME Awards for Their Research

Bioscience Association of Maine

USM student research projects focusing on possible treatments for a form of cancer and a powerful antioxidant produced in an algal species received top honors from the Bioscience Association of Maine on April 15. 

Senior biology major Anastasia D'Amico of Belgrade Lakes and master of science in biology candidate Rachel Cray of Freeport were among the top-three higher-education honorees at the 2020 BioME Student Showcase of science research.

D’Amico won second prize for her undergraduate research presentation “Investigating the effect that inhibiting FABP4 or FABP5 may have in myeloma cell proliferation.” Her work showed that inhibiting particular proteins originally produced by fat cells (adipocytes) reduced the growth of cancerous cells and increased survival in mice. D’Amico’s research also has implications for treating Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that can damage bones, the immune system and kidneys.

USM senior biology major Anastasia D'Amico of Belgrade Lakes says she's "grateful to have the opportunity to work in such an esteemed, hard-working lab that is dedicated to furthering research towards a cure for cancer." (Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs)

D’Amico says she undertook the project during a two-year research internship offered by USM at Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough. Since her junior year at USM, she has researched Multiple Myeloma in the lab of Dr. Michaela Reagan, a faculty scientist at Maine Medical Center Research Institute, where D’Amico has investigated if the intracellular pharmacological inhibition of fatty-acid binding proteins 4 and/or 5 — commonly referred to as FABP4 or FABP5 — decreased myeloma cell growth.

“The purpose of the study was to propose a novel mechanism to decrease tumor load and potentially serve as a future cancer therapeutic,” says D’Amico. “We know that FABPs have been shown to promote tumor growth, survival, and aggressiveness based on previous research in both multiple myeloma and other cancers.”

D’Amico says that she and Dr. Reagan originally hypothesized that the FABPs were being secreted by bone marrow adipocytes to promote cancer survival. But her experiments revealed that external FABPs did not promote cancer cell proliferation.

“This suggested that myeloma cells have a way to make and utilize their own FABPs,” she explains. “The exact mechanism of how FABPs help myeloma cell survival is unknown, but we know that it contributes to myeloma cell survival.”

With further investigation, D’Amico was able to show results that proved these inhibitors decreased tumor load and increased survival in a mouse model.

“These are very promising results that suggest that inhibition of FABPs in myeloma cells could serve as a potential new cancer therapy,” she says.

D’Amico’s undergraduate research was supported by her USM faculty advisor, Dr. David Champlin, Associate Professor of Biology, as well as USM master’s in biology candidate Mariah Farrell, who serves as a research assistant in Dr. Reagan’s lab at Maine Medical Center Research Institute.

“I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work in such an esteemed, hard-working lab that is so dedicated to furthering research towards a cure for cancer,” says D’Amico, who will attend New England College of Optometry this fall to pursue a doctorate of optometry and a master’s in vision science degree.

“The members of my lab have focused a lot of time, energy, and support to progressing my skills as a research scientist, which has made a huge difference in my life. I feel honored to have completed research that is so impactful and it only encourages my desire to continue research in my future. It's very exciting to think that we may be advancing towards a cure.”

USM master's in biology candidate Rachel Cray of Freeport says the practical applications of her award-winning research are tied to the billion-dollar global astaxanthin market. (Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs)

Cray, who graduated from USM in 2019 with a B.S. in Biology, won third prize in the 2020 BioME Student Showcase for a solo research project that comprises her graduate thesis. Her "Role of oxidative stress within the astaxanthin biosynthesis pathway of Haematococcus pluvialis" submission focuses on her research into a powerful antioxidant produced in one singular algal species (as well as other organisms) to understand how cellular stress affects its production.

Cray says that powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin, is a red carotenoid — a member of a class of fat-soluble pigments that gives color to plant parts, such as ripe tomatoes and autumn leaves. Within a particular species of algae, astaxanthin is produced in response to cellular stress, perhaps excess light or chemical shifts, such as nitrogen starvation or the presence of too much salt. In these conditions, the algae start producing chemicals internally in response to this stress. And among these chemical products are reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are a normal byproduct of cellular function in small amounts, but can be produced in excess during times of stress. Cray says that ROS can wreak havoc on the cell when in high concentrations in a process known as oxidative stress. Antioxidants like astaxanthin mitigate these effects significantly and prevent damage to cells.

As for the practical applications of her research, Cray says it’s directly tied to the billion-dollar global astaxanthin market.

“This red carotenoid pigment is crucial to aquatic systems and is essential to crustacean and fish growth, such as salmon, shrimp and lobster. The pigment is what gives these groups their characteristic red tint,” she says.

Cray says astaxanthin has also shown significant cancer prevention and anti-inflammatory abilities as well as enhancement of cardiac and immune response. And, because it’s able to cross the blood-brain barrier, astaxanthin has lessened the symptoms of complex neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, in clinical trials.

The pigment even has implications for the health of astronauts, which is why NASA continues to study astaxanthin production and its viability as a food source to grow within the International Space Station.

“Its strong antioxidant properties also could be of importance to astronauts exposed to higher doses of radiation in space, which induces mitochondrial production of reactive oxygen species,” Cray explains. “Consumption of astaxanthin in astronauts’ diets may help mitigate these effects.”

While the applications and benefits of astaxanthin abound, Cray says the challenges lie in the cost and lack of efficiency of production.

“The majority of astaxanthin sold on the market is a synthetic alternative that is cheaper to produce yet lacks the strong medical benefits and bioactivity of the natural pigment,” she says. “The synthetic form is also not approved for human consumption due to concerns with synthesis intermediates. Without a clear understanding of the astaxanthin biosynthesis pathway and its biochemical constituents, maximizing production efficiency will continue to be a struggle.”

Cray is pursuing her master’s research project with support from her thesis advisor, Dr. Ira “Ike” Levine, Professor of Natural and Applied Sciences, in his Aquatics Research Lab at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus. After nearly a year of literature research, planning, development, and examining preliminary data, Cray plans to spend summer 2020 “collecting hard data” and later developing her master’s thesis for publication in a peer-reviewed science journal. Beyond that Cray’s plans include working for a couple of years in either academia or industry, before applying to a Ph.D. programs in microbiology.

“My end goal is to earn a doctoral degree and work in industry or academia in the field of aquatic microbiology,” she says.

For now, Cray can savor her success — and D’Amico’s.

“Anastasia is my teaching assistant for the undergraduate microbiology lab section I teach,” Cray explains. “She's been my T.A. for two semesters now and has worked with me as my teaching assistant. I'm beyond proud of her and what she’s accomplished.”

— By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs