Research Communications

Tackling tumor growth: Biology graduate student examines ovarian cancer in the lab 

By Jessica Salerno
March 30, 2012

Working as a pharmacy technician while an undergraduate student at Suffolk University, Maria Muccioli regularly heard firsthand accounts from her customers about the unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment.

"I met so many people who had cancer and dispensed medicine to them," she recalls. "I heard them talk about what going through chemotherapy is like. I definitely felt passionate about doing research in something that might help someone like that."

Muccioli is now in her second year in Ohio University's doctoral program for molecular and cell biology, tackling projects that may ease the difficulty of cancer treatment for future patients. Her goal is to use immunology-based therapies to target specific cancers, which she hopes will lead to less invasive options.

 Maria Muccioli and Fabian Benencia
Maria Muccioli and Fabian Benencia are studying Toll-Like Receptor 3 (TLR3) and how it affects tumor growth.
(Photo credit: Patrick Oden, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine)

Muccioli chose Ohio University not only because it offered excellent graduate programs for her and her husband, who is studying physics, but because of the opportunity to work with cancer researcher Fabian Benencia, assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

She and Benencia are studying Toll-Like Receptor 3 (TLR3) and how it affects tumor growth. TLR3 is a protein that normally acts at the starting point of the immune response, but when expressed in tumor cells, it actually becomes a cause of chronic inflammation at the tumor site. Certain types of inflammation can contribute to new blood vessel formation, which then leads to tumor growth.

"So in theory your immune system is supposed to help protect you against cancer, but in fact when the tumor is expressing the TLRs, it can actually use those pathways to take advantage," Muccioli says.

The scientists are using ovarian cancer cells in the study because they show a high level of TLR3 activity, says Benencia, who has received funding for his cancer research from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the American Osteopathic Association.

"It's a very relevant disease, and it has been shown that there are a lot of inflammatory cells that are attracted to the microenvironment of the tumor. So the question is how do they get there?" he asks. "That's what we're trying to see. Because maybe if we can just stop them from getting there we can stop the tumor from growing."

Muccioli is currently working on "knocking down" or eliminating TLR3 from the cells. In a future step of her research, she will examine the impact of this action on the inflammatory profile of the tumor microenvironment using a mouse model of ovarian cancer.

"Our hypothesis is that if we knock down this protein, we'll have less inflammation at the tumor site. The tumor will be less likely to form new blood vessels and grow," Muccioli says.

In June 2011, Muccioli received a $6,000 Ohio University Student Enhancement Award to support her research. She says that not having to depend on someone else's funding has given her more independence as a researcher, and being responsible for her own budget gives her valuable experience for her future career.  

In addition to gaining research experience at Ohio University, Muccioli also mentored a student from Athens High School last summer. The student had a strong interest in neurology and neuroscience, and Muccioli was happy to teach basic techniques. "It really helps them. The amount that you give back to the community has an impact, especially in the Appalachia region, which has lower post-secondary education rates," she says.

After graduating from Ohio University, Muccioli plans to seek a postdoctoral position and eventually hopes to manage her own immunology research lab.

She's encouraged by the results of her doctoral research so far.

"I investigate one small pathway in the bigger picture of cancer progression," she says. "Hopefully in 20, 30 years we'll be able to put those pieces of the puzzle together and come up with better treatments. That's my hope, that somehow this will help make new medicines that are more effective, have less side effects, and are more targeted."

Editor's note: Muccioli received an honorable mention in the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program this week.