Cancer Research, Molecular Modeling, and Collaboration in a Virtual Setting

By: Andrea Estrella 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed nearly every facet of university life, and undergraduate research is no exception. Fordham student Lucy Hart serves as proof of the fact that the restrictions caused by the public health crisis we currently face need not stand in the way of continued research pursuits and student-to-student collaboration. 

A Junior at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus, Hart is a chemistry major with a double minor in biochemistry and environmental studies. She is an active member of Fordham’s extracurricular life, serving as a member of both the Women’s Empowerment club and Orientation Team and participating in Fordham Experimental Theatre. She is also actively involved in her major area of study, having worked as a tutor and a test proctor in the chemistry department. 

Hart first became interested in conducting research during the fall semester of her sophomore year when she came across the work of Dr. Banerjee, a professor of chemistry at Fordham. She immediately reached out to get involved with Dr. Banerjee’s lab, which focuses on the development of nanomaterials for biomedical applications, particularly the development of new drug delivery vehicles for targeting cancer cells. 

Hart has contributed to research efforts in both of these areas, beginning with her time in the lab during the 2019-2020 academic year. She describes the research’s ultimate goal as the development of materials that can selectively target cancer cells in the body without affecting healthy cells. If created successfully, researchers can then use said materials to encapsulate cancer drugs, leading to a treatment process that eliminates the extremely adverse side effects of currently available cancer treatments.

As the first step in the experimental process, Hart began by assembling the nanomaterials to be used in the experiment. This involved the conjugation — attachment by chemical bonding — of the peptides with polyphenols, which are antioxidant compounds found naturally in plants and foods. Such natural materials are preferable to avoid the toll that more toxic materials take on the body. Before being put to use in the experiment, Hart left these conjugated materials to sit and self-assemble while being monitored frequently over the course of several weeks. Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR), FT-IR Spectroscopy, Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), and Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC), Hart then characterized and visualized the materials, determining the molecules’ chemical structure and identifying their functional groups. 

After ensuring that the materials had formed as anticipated, Hart then moved on to the drug release stage, which involved filling the materials with cancer drugs to see how they would release into the body over time. This stage was quite hands-on and required multiple check-ins per day for an incubation period of around two weeks. Finally, Hart combined these materials with cancer cells to observe their interaction. This stage’s goal was twofold: to kill the cancer cells using the nanomaterials and, if successful, to identify the mechanism by which the materials were able to kill them. In the end, the experiments were largely successful — the materials were able to target and kill many of the cancer cells. While Hart and her peers in the lab finished this project last spring, she now works on a closely related project.

Adjusting to a virtual research environment without access to the lab, Hart is building on her previous research using a computational approach. Essentially, she is using various molecular modeling software to simulate different molecular structures and predict — similar to in her previous experiments — how they will react with certain things in the body. She begins by building virtual molecular models, then allows simulations to run for up to several days to determine the interactions between them. Relatedly, Hart creates molecular docking studies which enable her to simulate whether her previously created molecular models could selectively attach to cancer cells. She does this using receptors overexpressed in cancer cells. Since Hart focuses specifically on breast cancer, she uses estrogen receptors and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-α (PPAR-α), which are overexpressed in certain types of breast cancer cells. 

While this type of work is inevitably less hands-on than her previous work in the lab, Hart notes that it has allowed her to gain skills in new areas. For instance, she has developed the ability to use various molecular modeling software, which she cites as initially having been the cause of a significant learning curve. Despite the virtual setting, Hart says she and her peers in the lab have been able to maintain a collaborative environment. By asking other students questions about the content or technical difficulties with the software, she makes sure to stay in touch through Zoom meetings and text messages.  

Hart says she is grateful for all aspects of her research experience thus far. She applies this sentiment even to various mistakes she has made along the way, which she says have offered her valuable lessons. She is even more excited to continue her current work, and hopes to eventually get back into the lab, saying, “I’m really interested to see how our computational results actually compare with our lab results.” As for future plans, Hart hopes to attend medical school and views her research experience at Fordham as having allowed her to hone her interests and develop her research skills.

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