Austin Shull, an assistant professor of biology at Presbyterian College in Clinton, is involved with breast cancer research.
Shull's efforts explore cancer genomics, to understand differences between aggressive and non-aggressive breast cancers.
The research project Shull is working on started about four years ago, in collaboration with researchers at the Medical College of Georgia and one at the University of Lyon in France.
Shull was one of 10 professors in South Carolina to be awarded a South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research 2019 Developmental Research Project Program award in the amount of $50,000.
How does a small, private liberal arts college in South Carolina get to do undergraduate research like this?
Presbyterian College is part of a network, the South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (SC INBRE for short) of institutions that collaborate, to promote their research and training programs, and provide students with opportunities for hands-on research training. INBRE was established by National Institutes of Health.
In addition to several smaller undergraduate institutions, the SC INBRE network includes comprehensive research universities in the state: Clemson, University of South Carolina, and the Medical University of South Carolina.
This grant initiative helps increase biomedical research in South Carolina.
Funding is provided for faculty members at institutions within the network who pursue biomedical research and it provides funding to develop students, to potentially pursue careers in biomedical research. It also enables participants to publish their research in peer review journals and can help them compete for even larger grants available through the National Institutes of Health.
"This past summer, I had three of our students here at PC work with me on this research," Shull said. "One is a rising senior and two are rising juniors. They got to learn a lot about genome analysis and skills needed to be successful in a biomedical research lab. Students have also been able to present their work at national meetings."
Much of what is being accomplished at independent undergraduate institutions such as Presbyterian College, is in part, Shull said, because of the "explosion and accessibility of genomic information."
"A lot of our work is done in a lab," Shull said. "But, a lot of it now is also analysis on computer."
In his research, Shull looks at the genetic material in various breast cancers to better understand their structure, function and how they evolve and work.
"You look at what the DNA of a breast cancer tumor is and how that differs from the body's normal DNA," Shull explained. "Genetic abnormalities can provide clues about how normal tissue turns into a cancer. Normal cells take on genetic change that make them into a cancer.
"Cancers come in different sub types and cancers that become resistant start taking on different genetic makeups," Shull added. "How are those different from cancers that respond really well to treatments?"
Shull, 30, is a 2011 graduate from Presbyterian College with a degree in biology and he has been part of the faculty at his undergraduate alma mater for four years. He's currently teaching two introductory biology courses and working on his research.
"When I graduated from Presbyterian, I headed to the Medical College of Georgia to work on my Ph.D.," Shull said. "I love sciences and I love finding what we don't know. I'm inquisitive about why things work the way they do. Research can provide societal benefit to human medicine and human diseases."
Breast cancer survival rates have greatly improved during the last 30 years, he said.
"But, if a cancer comes back, the survival rate drastically decreases and there's also a drastic reduction in survival rates if cancer metastasizes and spreads to other organs," Shull said.
Shull said particularly aggressive breast cancers, such as those classified as triple-negative, which are cancers that test negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and excess HER2 protein, that can be more difficult to treat.
"DNA can be modified in several ways," Shull said. "One of those ways is through mutation. However, there is another modification that can occur to DNA that can change how DNA is read, called DNA methylation.
"It's almost like how adding commas and semicolons in a sentence can change the way it is read," he explained. "Cells have to interpret the instructions of DNA.
"Where are modifications taking place in more aggressive cancer cells as compared to the less aggressive cancer cells?" Shull asked. Understanding how cancer cells interpret DNA modifications matters a lot, in terms of the progression of a cancer."
To model aggressive and non-aggressive breast cancers, Shull said his research uses laboratory grown cell lines that can be grown in petri dishes.
"There's a large database that the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute has created that basically has de-identified patient information with corresponding genomic information of a patient's cancer," Shull said. "What we see in our model? Can we see that in patients? We were able to find a subset of patients who reflected the pattern we saw in our aggressive cancer model and our non-aggressive model."
Shull said he noted patients who reflected the more aggressive cancer model had an earlier age of diagnosis and they were more likely to relapse.
Shull said researchers are examining a gene involved with inflammation that appears to be altered in the aggressive cancer cells.
"Cancer cells can hijack immune system cells in a way that will help cancer cells grow instead of die," he said. "These DNA methylation patterns may allow cancer cells to respond to the immune system in a way that helps it grow. That's where advances in immunotherapy might help to reverse that...However, immunotherapy does not work for all patients."
No two cancers are the same, Shull said, requiring tailored treatment approaches.
"I would like to continue this research, to better understand the process of how, through these DNA methylation changes, aggressive breast cancers respond to the immune system."
With better understanding, Shull said it might be possible to eventually develop targeted therapies where immune cells are no longer susceptible to being hijacked by cancer cells and breast cancer's potential for spreading to other sites in the body could be slowed.
Increasing breast cancer awareness is also helpful, Shull said.
"Our pharmacy school here at Presbyterian College is involved with public community seminars on breast cancer, talking about prevention, ways breast cancer can present itself, diagnosis and more," Shull said. "The idea is to help people become more proactive about their health. For many in rural communities, the health care professional they have the most consistent contact with is a pharmacist."