Health Care and Higher Education

FSU research sheds light on melanoma

October 30, 2012
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FSU research sheds light on melanoma
The melanoma cancer research on zebrafish stem cells being directed by Ferris State University biology professor James Hoerter, left -- with student, Alexandria Casillas -- is funded by $347,000 in grants. Courtesy Ferris State University

It’s a science experiment straight out of a Spider-Man movie.

Ferris State University biology professor James Hoerter could accomplish what Marvel’s fictional Curt Connors tragically failed to do: Unlock the secret regeneration power of human stem cells.

Since 2011, Hoerter has been running a research program in regenerative medicine. He and his graduate and undergraduate student assistants are exploring the makeup and use of zebrafish stem cells in an attempt to cure melanoma cancer.

“I’m fascinated with trying to understand stem cells and how to turn ours on. Maybe we can turn our natural regeneration processes on like a zebrafish,” Hoerter said. “There are stem cell theories on cancer, but (not) melanoma. No one has really identified a pigment stem cell in humans yet, but there is ample evidence to indicate they are there.”

Zebrafish, which share 90 percent of the same genes as humans, Hoerter said, can awaken stem cells that regenerate their organs, even re-growing heart valves and tail fins.

Hoerter exposes the fish to ultraviolet-A light, which he said has been linked to causing melanoma cancer.

UVA penetrates deeper in the skin than typical UVB light, he said, and it could be one of the reasons for an increase in cases of melanoma cancer.

“Melanoma is a nasty cancer, and the instances of it are going way up,” Hoerter said. “In the 1960s, it was every one out of 600 people. Now, it’s one out of 50. There are about 8,000 to 10,000 people who die every year from melanoma cancer.”

Hoerter has a hunch that melanoma might develop in the stem cells, and he wants to experiment on the zebrafish. If Hoerter can consistently trace the zebrafish’s melanoma path, it could lead him back to the stem cells, which he could then isolate and try to unlock the secrets of regeneration.

Ultimately, it could lead to human stem cells curing themselves of cancer.

“Right now, we don’t really know if it forms out of the stem cell, but we know it involves an over-proliferation of the pigment cell,” he said. “In our lab we’re looking at the possibility that maybe melanoma doesn’t begin in pigment cell … maybe it starts in a stem cell responsible for making the pigment cell. And that little stem cell is deeper in the skin.”

It’s groundbreaking work, he said, and if it sounds super-cool, that’s because it’s part of superhero mythology. In this year’s reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” young Peter Parker and Connors actually discuss zebrafish regeneration and stem cells in their first encounter. Connor’s self-injecting experiments in cross-species genetics eventually lead to his reptilian transformation as Spider-Man’s infamous foe, the Lizard.

Fortunately, Hoerter is far from becoming a super-villain, although Connor’s fictional science of regenerating lost limbs might not be far from reality, he said.

Successful clinical trials in human tissue regeneration suggest humans could turn on repressed genes and reform lost limbs, Hoerter said.

“I really think in 10 years we could regenerate a hand back. There are clinical trials now with muscles and nerve regeneration,” he said. “I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility if we can somehow find what activates those stem cells.”

It’s all thanks to research grants funded by a three-year, $347,000 Academic Enhancement Research Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health. Hoerter said he expects that funding to continue, thanks to the positive results being seen in FSU’s lab.

“A lot of our students work in the laboratory and have the opportunity to go to meetings and present their material or have their writings published,” said Joseph Lipar, head of the FSU Biology Department. “They’ve gotten good results and they’ve got a great model, which allows for rapid research.”

Allowing students to work with Hoerter in the process not only helps train future scientists in necessary hands-on work, but also attracts younger talent to the area, Hoerter said.

“It’s through these experiences that they develop these interests, and then they go on to the Ph.D. programs and become scientists,” he said. “It would keep them here and encourages them to do the research in Michigan.”

One of those students is Alexandria Casillas, a National Institutes of Environmental Health Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, who came from California to work with Hoerter.

Although Casillas hopes to eventually return to her family in California, she said her research at FSU has shown other faculty and staff that grants can be obtained to pursue undergraduate research.

She said she is very thankful for the experience she has had in Michigan working with Hoerter.

“FSU now has a summer research program where students get hands-on research in the sciences,” she said. “Some of the faculty, as well as the science department, have begun searching and applying, as well as receiving grants to begin their own research labs where undergraduate students will receive the necessary training and tools to attend graduate school and be successful.”

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