A career fighting cancer
Monica Burdick and colleagues examine how and why cancer spreads, seeking ways to improve diagnosis and treatment
By Corinne Colbert
Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer from cancer develops a visceral hatred of the disease. Unfortunately, few can do much about it beyond giving to charities.
Monica Burdick is one of the few. Having lost two uncles and an aunt to cancer, the associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering has made fighting cancer her life’s work.
And she’s not alone in taking her work personally. “When I talk to my students in the lab, they tell me personal stories about why this research is important to them, why it’s important for them to be a part of it,” she says.
She’s a serious scientist, but for Burdick, personal passion is just as important as professional detachment.
“I feel a connection to my research,” she says. “It’s part of why I do what I do. As an engineer, I find it satisfying to be able to make a product that has the potential to change how we think about cancer.”
Making a difference
Since arriving at Ohio University in 2007 after a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, Burdick has been busy doing just that. Much of her work has focused on metastatic cancer—how and why cancer spreads from the original tumor to new places in the body.
“Monica’s work has been instrumental in identifying how cancer cells attach to the surface of blood vessels, a key step in cancer metastasis, and also in developing biological tools to help unravel the mysteries of cancer immune-evasion and progression,” says Steven Barthel of Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.
More recently, though, Burdick has turned her attention to cancer stem cells. While little is known about cancer stem cells—which are found in tumors, can self-renew, and spur additional tumor formation—Burdick says they resist traditional radiation and chemotherapy. They may lie dormant in the patient’s body and, when conditions are right, strike back even stronger than before.
Figuring out what makes stem cells tick is the focus of a nearly $500,000 grant Burdick received in 2011 from the National Science Foundation. Working with David Tees, associate professor of physics, and Fabian Benencia, a faculty member with joint appointments in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology and the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Burdick is using a method called micropipette aspiration, together with biochemical assays, to see if they can distinguish cancer stem cells from regular cancer cells.
“There may be a special marker or signature that would let us better identify stem cells, which would help us diagnose or treat patients better, or potentially get rid of their cancers,” she says.
Cancer stem cell research is so new that anything the team finds will be a significant contribution to the field, she says.
At the same time, Burdick is heading another project, backed by $442,500 from the National Cancer Institute (an institute within the National Institute of Health), to try out a new way to analyze cancer tissue that may yield more than just a yes/no diagnosis. This team includes Doug Goetz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Ramiro Malgor an associate professor of pathology in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. The team has applied for a patent on their technique, so Burdick can’t get too specific about how it works. But she will drop a hint: It involves cancer in situ (where the tumor is).
“Where we are looking is as important as when we are looking,” she says. “If we can figure out some of these progressions, we can help figure out the disease.”
Strength in numbers
Notice something interesting about those teams? A chemical engineer, a physicist, an immunologist, a biomolecular engineer, and a pathologist. In cancer research, interdisciplinary is the way to go, Burdick says. A complicated disease requires a complex approach.
“Cancer doesn’t break down into just physics or just chemistry or just engineering or just biology,” she notes. “It has a little bit of all those things. It’s not just one disease.”
Each member of the team brings a fresh approach to the investigation that the others might not have considered. “We each have different ways of looking at the problem; every day we learn something new,” she says.
It’s an important lesson for the many students involved in the team’s lab work. Multidisciplinary teams must be able to communicate and respect other points of view, she says.
Undergraduate students play a significant role in the research, and even have achieved co-author status on scientific papers coming out of the lab, Burdick adds.
“The work we’re doing wouldn’t be possible without dedicated, bright undergrads to support them,” she says. “We’re able to do more things and better things because of them. They’re doing work that grad students and post-docs get to do.”
And because all of these minds are in one place, the work can progress much faster than it would if such collaboration were taking place long distance.
“There aren’t a lot of people with the collective experience we have at a single institution,” she says. “It seems like we’re making leaps instead of incremental advances.”
Indeed, after just one year of work, the projects are already yielding findings worthy of publication. Burdick, Goetz, Tees, Benencia, and several student researchers collaborated on a paper for a special issue of Frontiers in Oncology edited by Michael King, professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University.
“Monica and her colleagues contributed a provocative article to the journal presenting some new ideas on how the expression of cancer adhesion molecules may be related to fundamental changes that occur in cancer stem cells,” King says. “This is an exciting area of cancer research.”
Understanding these basic mechanisms of cancer growth can help Burdick and colleagues develop a new method of improving detection and treatment of cancer. To achieve this, they’ll spend the next few years putting their micropipette aspiration assay and their in situ assay through rigorous tests to determine how they can move from the lab to the clinical setting.
“If our test can predict cancer sooner or detect more aggressive forms of cancer, then we would definitely be on our way to put the test or device into practice,” she says, “and that’s what we’d like to see.”
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, students, and staff.