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Cancer research co-op points to exciting career path

When Mark Naniong, S’14, began his co-op at the Boston-based Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Sciences at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute last spring, becoming a scientist wasn’t on his radar. But his experiential learning opportunity at the world-renowned treatment and research facility gave him a rare opportunity to conduct cutting edge research that could have major implications for the general public—an impact that this fifth-year chemistry major hopes to cultivate in a future career in patent law.

The project in which Naniong participated recently produced results that were reported in Science Express, the early online publication edition of Science Magazine, one of the most prestigious academic journals in the field.

“Being on a project with such far-reaching applications has shown me that I want to be in a career that is closely linked with the excitement and the progress that innovation in science holds,” Naniong said.

While on co-op, Naniong spent hundreds of hours operating one of the industry’s most high-tech robotic instruments. Referred to as the Biomek FX liquid handler, it allowed the student-researcher to transfect hundreds of cells with a luminescent protein and a drug called thalidomide to see how it affected a cell’s function.

In the 1960s and 70s, thalidomide was commonly prescribed to pregnant women for treating morning sickness and insomnia. But it was found to adversely affect more than 10,000 American, European, and Australian children who were born with limb and other severe, and often fatal, defects.

The drug was quickly pulled from clinical circulation, but it has remained of interest to researchers, who discovered in the early 1990s that it was also useful for treating multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that affects bone marrow. In 2006 it was approved for clinical treatment of the disease.

In order to develop new drugs that mimic thalidomide’s anti-cancer activities but do not produce birth defects, researchers began examining the mechanisms behind those two phenomena. The research that Naniong participated in goes a long way toward untangling this puzzle.

A protein called cereblon is important for the development of normal limbs. In 2010 a group of Japanese researchers discovered that lenalidomide—a drug closely related to thalidomide—caused birth defects by inactivating cereblon. It was originally believed that this was also the mechanism that caused the drugs’ anticancer properties, but the new Dana-Farber research shows that is not the case.

The lead author on the paper, Dr. William G. Kaelin, Jr., said that while the drugs’ anticancer properties are also related to cereblon, it is rather a downstream effect of this protein that causes the tumor cells to die.

According to Kaelin, this distinction could make it possible for researchers to develop new thalidomide-like drugs that retain its anti-cancer properties but not its “teratogenicity.”

As a member of Kaelin’s team, Naniong witnessed the dedication and passion required to seeing a research project through to the end. “We’ve been fortunate to recruit many great young scientists from Northeastern’s co-op program,” said Richard Middleton, senior research scientist at the Belfer Institute who holds a doctoral degree in medical oncology. “Mark typified our experience with these students. He was a tremendous help in validating and optimizing the robotic screening assay used to identify the target of lenalidomde.”

“Working on a project with such large implications really showed me what it means to conduct valuable research,” he said. In the end, the experience helped him determine a career path that aligned with his intellectual acuity and the excitement of being part of scientific innovations.