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Biotech students at ECSU continue cancer research

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Staff Photo by Thomas J. Turney Elizabeth City State University senior biology major Sasha Hodge (front) and junior engineering technology major Narendra Banerjee check uterine cancer cells to see if they are ready to be analyzed during class at ECSU, Tuesday, January 17, 2017.

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By CINDY BEAMON
Albemarle Life Editor

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The cost of anti-cancer medicines is high, but biotech students at Elizabeth City State University are researching alternatives that may help lower the price.

Biotechnology professor Hirendranath Banerjee has applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore a lower cost cancer drug that ECSU students have been testing in the lab for several years.

Banerjee said the grant application has passed its first screening and will go before a panel of scientists for consideration this spring. The grant will allow ECSU to continue research it began with previous backing from Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, a well-known private biochemical research foundation, and the National Cancer Institute.

If ECSU receives the grant, the Pharmacy Complex lab would test anti-cancer drugs made with rhenium compounds, which are less costly than platinum used for existing treatments.

ECSU is collaborating with another historically black institution Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Cancer Research Center in Baltimore for the proposed project. Banerjee said ECSU has already tested an anti-cancer drug developed at Morgan State that resulted in "good data." Those results have been included in the grant application. 

The grant would add to over $1 million ECSU has secured for various medical research projects and student training over the past 17 years, said Banerjee.

ECSU does not have big foundations or endowments that larger research universities rely upon for funding. Instead ECSU has sought grants from National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, NASA, National Science Foundation, NIH Minority Access to Research Careers branch and other funding agents.

Keeping research going at ECSU has been a group effort, said Banerjee, listing ECSU faculty, students, and supporters in the science field who have made the work possible.

"Research is not a one-person show. We all have to work together," he said.

For several years, ECSU students have been trying to identify a gene that may be responsible for a higher-than-average risk of prostate cancer in African-American males.

The research conducted in cooperation with Wayne State University's Karmanos Cancer Center involves the study of prostate cancer biopsy samples to identify genetic markers. Students use real-time polymerase chain reaction, a wet laboratory technique in molecular biology, to study the cells' DNA.

"It's a lot of hard work and data crunching," said Banerjee.

Banerjee said he is happy to report that ECSU graduate student William Kahan recently pinpointed one particular microRNA that may play a role in the disease. At the ECSU Pharmacy Complex lab last week, Kahan said his finding is encouraging but more research is needed to determine the significance of what he has observed.

Even though grant money for that project ended in 2015, students have continued the work, thanks to educational training grants.

Banerjee said not enough research has been done to help identify why African-Amercians males are more likely to develop prostate cancer than other racial groups.

One problem is cancer research centers have only developed a limited number of cancer cell samples to test, he said.

Research centers have two cancer cell lines for African-Americans, significantly fewer than those from Caucasians and Asians, he noted.

"There's not much you can conclude with just two samples," he said.

Student researcher Myla Worthington said she finds satisfaction in knowing her work may bridge the "health care disparity" for minorities.

She also liked "just knowing you are behind the scenes helping and discovering things that can be used to help others stay alive."

Banerjee said the research not only helps explore new medical possibilities but also helps prepare minority students for careers in the science and computer technology fields.

Banerjee said most of his students have landed successful careers in science. Some are chemists, biotechnologists, pharmacists, surgeons, and educators at prestigious companies and institutions, Banerjee said as he listed them by name.

"I believe I have met some of the most brilliant minds during my tenure. I firmly believe all the students have great potential," said Banerjee.

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