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Researching the Way to a Cure

Photo of Katie DeCicco-Skinner by Vanessa Robertson.

When biology professor Katie DeCicco-Skinner was a child, she often preferred to spend her days off of school in her father’s microbiology lab at Catholic University. “I’d be streaking bacterial plates, eating soft serve with his grad students,” she says. “We’d plan fun experiments.”

Her enthusiasm for research has been going strong ever since. DeCicco-Skinner was recently awarded a $381,871 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Wiest of NIH to investigate the mechanism by which the lack of a gene called Tumor progression locus 2 (Tpl2) causes skin cancer in mice. “What we found out previously is if we completely knock the gene out of mice, about 80 percent of those mice develop skin cancer,” she explains. “What we’re trying to figure out now is the mechanism behind this increased tumorigenic potential.”

She has a good starting place for her research already. About 200 years ago, German scientist Rudolf Virchow wrote that there was a link between inflammation and cancer, which came from observations of cells that he believed to be inflammatory surrounding isolated tumors. Not until around 2000 did this hypothesis resurface and ever since, a huge amount of research has come about linking chronic inflammation with the development of cancer. For example, “If you have hepatitis, which is inflammation of the liver, you’re more prone to get liver cancer,” DeCicco-Skinner says. Her new grant stems from this connection.

The mice that lack the Tpl2 gene have a higher degree of inflammation than normal mice, and this inflammation in the Tpl2 knockout mice contributes to increased susceptibility to develop skin cancer. DeCicco-Skinner believes that in the case of skin cancer, Tpl2 works as a tumor suppressor gene. “We think it normally controls your inflammatory response, so when the gene is absent, inflammation (and thus potential to develop skin cancer) increases,” she says. “If you already have a cell that’s been what we call ‘initiated,’ meaning it has a DNA mutation, the inflammatory cells can give promoting effects to that cancer cell, causing it to grow quicker than normal.”

DeCicco-Skinner will spend three years running biological tests of isolated skin cells taken from these mice. Her goal is to find out what exactly causes such high rates of skin cancer, and her findings could help create new cancer therapies down the road. “By understanding the pathways better, and understanding the genes that regulate inflammation, it helps us actually design more sophisticated drugs that can then go and block the pathways that become overactive as a cell turns into a cancer cell,” she says.

She won’t be researching alone, though—she has brought on a couple of her undergraduate and graduate students to help with the grant research. They’ll help extract protein and RNA from cells and then examine the pathways that are involved with inflammation to try to figure out which specific proteins are altered when Tpl2 is absent.

DeCicco-Skinner acknowledges how important it is to not just work with students in the classroom, but also to bring them into her lab work. “If you involve them in actually doing hands-on research, I think the students get a lot more out of that,” she says. “They learn the intricacies of designing experiments, analyzing data from them, coming up with the next experiment or the next question to ask.”

She makes sure to involve all of the students in her lab in the publication process that results from scientific research as well. Most of her undergraduates are pre-med, some are planning to pursue MD/PhDs, and one is pre-dental. Getting published means a boost to a student’s resume, which can give them an edge in the graduate school application process.

Working on a study before pursuing a higher graduate degree in the medical or research field is crucial. “It prepares them to see whether they truly love research,” she explains.

DeCicco-Skinner can speak to this ideology firsthand. When she was a student at Virginia Tech, she realized she liked performing undergraduate research in a biochemistry lab, but that researching the intricacies of the human body was her true passion. After taking a cancer biology class, she decided to pursue a PhD program that emphasized immunology, a discipline that allowed her to study the relationship biology has to a human system, rather than just looking at an isolated chemical reaction in a lab.

DeCicco-Skinner is excited about the changing face of research at American University, particularly crediting the administration for putting more money into the facilities. But she acknowledges that the best part of doing research at American is the students. “I love having smaller classes so I get to know the students really well, and then I can pull some of the ones interested in learning more about cancer development into my research laboratory.”