We sat with Lansing-native Marquicia Pierce, Industrial Postdoctoral Fellow at Bachmann Laboratory to talk with her about what led her into science—and ultimately what brought her to Michigan State University to conduct research on a rare form of childhood cancer, neuroblastoma.
Q. What’s your history with MSU, and what brought you here?
A: Before I started with the Bachmann lab the only connection I had with MSU was that while attending Everett High School our marching band would go up to MSU to practice on their field. I very much enjoyed it. What I appreciate most about this opportunity Spartan Innovations provides is that this is an ideal situation to explore the connections between science and business. This fellowship allows me to apply my MBA training as well as continue my scientific endeavors.
Q: If you could explain what you research in Dr. Bachmann’s lab to a teenager, what would you tell them?
A: Dr. Bachmann’s lab is focused on finding new ways to treat cancer patients by taking advantage of the differences between normal cells and cancer cells. While there are many types of cancers, we are currently focused on multiple myeloma (cancer of the plasma cells) and childhood cancers like neuroblastoma (cancer of immature nerve cells). Dr. Bachmann, in collaboration with scientists in Europe, has discovered several natural-product based compounds that may target certain cancer cells differently. I am assessing these new compounds by describing and categorizing their effect on different kinds of cancer cells and animal models. The goal is to determine the relationship between how much of the compound is at the action site and the resulting therapeutic and/or adverse effects.
Q: What is a proteasome inhibitor? What’s the importance of studying the specific neuroblastoma cancer that you study?
A: The new compounds that I am testing are called proteasome inhibitors. These compounds behave differently but they all in some way decrease (or inhibit) the activity of a group of proteins called proteasomes. Proteasomes help maintain normal cell function by safely breaking down unneeded or damaged proteins so that the components can be used in other processes. Proteasomes have a major role in regulating proteins that coordinate cell-division and cell-death. When proteasome inhibitors stop the activity of proteasomes certain proteins are no longer broken down. Instead these proteins build up until eventually it is toxic to the cell causing the cell to be impaired and/or die.
Proteasomes may have a more significant role in cancer cells because these cells divide much faster than normal cells. Proteasome inhibitors are used in cell cancer therapies because it is one way to target specifically cancer cells. Neuroblastoma and multiple myeloma (MM) are considered “rare” diseases. However, neuroblastoma accounts for 8-10% of all childhood cancers and the American Cancer Society predicts over 30,000 new MM cases this year. Furthermore, the insight gained from studying this particular cancer may be applied to a wide range of other diseases.
Q. What is the goal of your research? What effect do you hope to be making?
A: The goal of this research is to find the most effective proteasome inhibitors and characterize how they work. Our most potent proteasome inhibitor, TIR-199, has shown promise in both neuroblastoma and MM cell lines. In collaboration with Spartan Innovations we can continue to validate this compound with in vitro and in vivo analysis as the next step in the commercialization process. My goal is to provide a clear picture of how this therapeutic complements but is also distinguishable from what is already available to cancer patients.