Stopping the ‘Bullies’: LSU BE, ChE Students Research Breast Cancer Cells

October 26, 2020

Two women wearing masks standing next to eachotherBATON ROUGE, LA – The pandemic may have halted the world, but it did not stop LSU Engineering students from continuing their cancer research that could one day save lives. Under the supervision of LSU Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Elizabeth Martin and LSU Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Adam Melvin, two groups of students are conducting research to see how cancer cells multiply and “convince” healthy cells to join them.

“This project is providing a novel technology that’s going to allow us to see how breast cancer cells talk to neighboring cells,” Melvin said. “Breast cancer cells are like a bully, convincing their neighbors to help them. Understanding how they con neighboring cells into joining them will give us a better understanding on how to treat cancer.”

According to Martin, who is considered a breast cancer research expert by her peers, previous breast cancer research has strictly focused on the cancer cells, with the assumption that there’s something specific to them that would induce resistance to therapies or cancer cells returning.

“More recently, studies show that cell tissue surrounding cancer cells may be a driving mechanism to resistance and reoccurrence,” she said. “By pinpointing specific components and interactions through cancer cells, we can identify what causes this.”

Melvin and Martin have collaborated on multiple breast cancer research projects in the past three years, with their most recent project involving a BE senior design team and ChE students. The pair had already begun designing a microfluidic device to study how cells talk to one another. One of the challenges, however, was that it requires sampling and visualization. So, Melvin assigned a BE senior design team to begin building a custom incubator in the fall of 2019.

The 2019 BE senior design team consisted of Jordan Remont, Andy Lin, Britt Young, James Blake, Savannah Heath, and Tanishq Goribidanur, who were able to work on the project during the fall semester but had to quit in early spring due to the pandemic. A new team of BE students was recently assigned to complete the project and is going over all of the information that was left to them from the previous team. The current BE design team consists of Haley Lassiter, Adam Howe, Connor Orvin, Diensn Xing, Matthew Davis, and Steven Saweikis.

Remont, the former team lead from Raceland, La., who is now working on her master’s at Baylor University, conducted breast cancer research during her four years at LSU under Martin and also worked in Melvin’s lab on similar research during her senior year.

“Our goal was to create an incubator that allowed the microfluidic device system in the incubator to be sampled and get a timepoint reading so we can have a better idea of what the cells say before they get to the end,” Remont said.

She explains that cells talk to one another like people have conversations. If someone gets mad, you wonder what the other person said to make them so angry. This is much like a cell morphing into a cancer cell and trying to figure out what was “said” to make that cell change.

LSU ChE junior Emmaline Miller of Lafayette, La., designed the co-culture microfluidic device that has three channels separating the breast cancer cells, healthy stem cells, and food to feed the cells. LSU ChE sophomore Andrew Vu of Kenner, La., is helping Miller by building a structure to hold the vertical reservoirs in the device. Miller, Vu, Howe, and Saweikis are also students in the LSU Honors College.

“This device is interesting because we can check it at multiple time points,” Miller said. “The goal is to do long-term culturing, which is two weeks. Instead of just throwing cells in there with their food, we now have the opportunity to look at them every six to 12 hours, or however often we’d like. That gives us a more precise idea if they initially say one thing and do another, or if the concentration changes.”

The 2.5 ft.-by-2 ft. stainless aluminum incubator would house the microfluidic device holding the cells and be kept at 37 degrees Celsius with a 5% CO2  level in a humidified environment.

Young, a BE graduate from Franklin, La., was able to get the incubator made cheaply through his manufacturing connections. Blake, a BE graduate from New Orleans, 3D-printed the XYZ step remote system, which allows researchers to control how one views the device while it’s in the incubator.

“The incubator is closed the whole time, but the remote system allows us to do what we need to do to manipulate the system outside of it so we’re not interrupting the CO2 and temperature conditions,” Remont said.

Current BE senior design team member Lassiter of Pace, Fla., said the 2019 team laid the groundwork, but the current team plans to finish the project by the end of the spring semester.

“Having a strong foundation to start from has been helpful and has also given us the opportunity to see what we can make better based on their trial and error process,” she said. “Our goal is to work with the current build of the incubator and enhance it so the incubator performs optimally. This is a very exciting project for our group.”

Miller says this project has been cathartic for her since her grandmother passed away from carcinoma.

“My parents always joked that I would find a cure for cancer,” she said. “I really didn’t think LSU did cancer research, but this is an opportunity to do what I love—chemical engineering coupled with helping people. It’s a noble line of work.” 


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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist