January 15, 2009

Professor Robert Kurt Receives $190,000 Grant to Research New Ways to Fight Cancer

By Courtney Morin ’10
Robert Kurt, associate professor of biology, has received a three-year, $190,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute to research new ways for the human body to fight off cancer.

Kurt’s goal of targeting cancer with the immune system will start by “educating” the immune system about what cancer cells look like. He explains that the immune system normally responds to microorganisms because they do not look like human cells. Cancer cells are able to avoid the immune system by looking like normal cells. In short, the immune system recognizes microorganisms as dangerous and cancer as not dangerous.

“It turns out that the proteins that our immune system uses to ‘see’ microorganisms are also found on cancer cells. This means that if cancer cells ‘see’ microorganisms they will start an immune response,” he says. “The idea of the grant is to show cancer cells parts of microorganisms so that the cancer cells start an immune response, and then we will determine how this influences tumor growth and metastasis.”

Kurt’s research program with students was instrumental in getting the grant and he will continue to involve student researchers as the project moves forward. Some students who have worked on related projects through honors theses, EXCEL research, and independent study include Priyanka Nair ’08, Jacqueline Golden ’07, Emily Smith ’08, Cara O’Donnell ’07, Karolina Janasek ’07, Monika Sajduk ’07, and biology majors Alison Huggins ’09 (Narberth, Pa.) and Casey Vasta ’09 (Woodstown, N.J.).

Neuroscience major Christopher Blum ’10 (Plainview, N.Y.) and biology major Erica Sgroe ’09 (Ossining, N.Y.) have begun working on the project as independent research.

Although there are many benefits stemming from this research, Kurt describes the immune response against cancer as a double-edged sword.

“While the immune system can kill tumor cells and be used to save lives, there are aspects of the immune response that make cancer cells grow faster and spread (metastasize),” he explains.

He hopes that the project will lead to researchers and doctors being able to determine how to use the immune system to control cancer growth and metastasis.

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