December 28, 2008

Nafis Hasan ’11 Searches for a Cure for Breast Cancer

Biology major writes about his work with Bradley Antanaitis, associate professor of physics, on interdisciplinary research

Biology major Nafis Hasan ’11 (Dhaka, Bangladesh) is working on interdisciplinary EXCEL Scholars research focusing on safer drug treatments for breast cancer with Bradley Antanaitis, associate professor of physics, and Marco Tjioe ’09 (North Sumatera, Indonesia), who is pursuing a B.S. with a major in mechanical engineering and an A.B. in chemistry.

According to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2004, 186,772 women and 1,815 men were diagnosed with breast cancer. Of these, 40,954 women and 362 men died. This data reveals how widespread and deadly breast cancer is. In fact, aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, it is the most common form of cancer in women.

Most forms of breast cancer require external factors for cell growth, and the factor implicated most often is the female hormone estrogen. In recent years the development of drugs such as Tomoxifen and Raloxifene that inhibit the binding of estrogen to its receptor have been moderately successful in treating estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) breast cancers. But these drugs, as well as some of their chemical cousins, can have serious side effects.

Fortunately, there are some promising alternatives on the horizon, some of which are derived from natural sources, for example, alpha fetoprotein. Alpha fetoprotein (AFP) is an extensively studied protein expressed naturally in humans only during certain physiological or pathophysiological conditions. Specifically, AFP is found in pregnant women, fetuses, and individuals with hepatocellular carcinoma, making this protein of great interest to the medical community.

In particular, AFP has been shown to prevent or inhibit the growth of ER+ breast cancer cell lines in vitro and thus shows promise as a potential therapeutic agent in the fight against breast cancer. Unfortunately, whole proteins tend to be unwieldy, inherently unstable, and difficult to administer – properties that make them unsuitable as front line therapeutic agents. Recently, researchers at Albany Medical College have identified and synthesized a derivative of AFP that retains the therapeutic element of the whole protein, but is more stable and easier to handle.

We have obtained samples of two variations of the derivative for study. Our goal is to determine the solution structures of these two promising anti-breast cancer lead compounds and explore modes of interaction with likely receptors. Ultimately, we hope to shed light on the relationship between the compounds, estrogen receptors, and breast neoplasm.

Initially, my role in the research project was to determine the stable conformations of 4-hydroxyproline, one of the amino-acid constituents of the compounds. This work combines molecular modeling using HyperChem, a powerful modeling software package, with information from one-dimensional and two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance studies.

The research group I work in currently has two other members: Professor Brad Antanaitis and Marco Tjioe. The three members of the group have markedly different backgrounds – I am majoring in biology, Marco is a double major in chemistry and mechanical engineering, and Professor Antanaitis is a biophysicist. Our diverse backgrounds allow us to view this project from an unusually broad perspective and have already led to some very stimulating and productive brainstorming. Working with Dr. Antanaitis has actually inspired me more and more to delve into the world of research – he sees us as his equals in this project. We discuss and share ideas not as teacher and students, but as colleagues.

  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Undergraduate Research

posted in Academic News, Collaborative, High-Impact Learning, Committed Teachers and Scholars, Involved, Focused, and Active Students, News and Features, Student Profiles, Students

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