Lab Grows Three-Dimensional Tumors to Detect Biomarkers in Cancer Patients

By Colby Gallagher

Published on November 22, 2019

As a doctor of pharmacy student, Megan Shuminski PharmD’21 knows having experience in a cancer cell culture lab isn’t common, but thinks her experience working delving into the science behind clinical treatments will give her a unique understanding when treating future patients.

“I think that it’s so important that pharmacy students understand how meaningful it is for them to get into early, phase one clinical trial work with new drug discovery,” she said. “It’s really important when you’re a clinical pharmacist to understand how to interpret these novel drugs that come out on the market and use evidence-based medicine to find your patient the best treatment.”

Shuminksi spent the summer of 2019 working alongside Isabelle Mercier, PhD, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. Dr. Mercier’s lab studies the underlying mechanism of metastatic progression, or secondary sites from where primary tumors have evolved.

“Usually these metastases are the ones that are going to be causing mortality in these patients, so we’re very interested to know how these metastases progress,” said Dr. Mercier.

As a fifth-year student with a full course load, Shuminski knew she’d have to work in the lab during the summer and that would require a scholarship. Not knowing what to expect, she applied for a graduate-level award through the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and received one that was funded entirely through USciences’ biggest donor event.

“The scholarship was possible through Giving Tuesday, we got a scholarship for her to come in the lab the entire summer,” said Dr. Mercier. “We have a tremendous amount of projects that are really ready for this transition and that’s exactly what this scholarship did.”

“I felt like it was so meaningful that they gave me this opportunity as a pharmacy student because of how impactful it might be on my future career,” said Shuminski.

Just before Shuminski joined the lab, Dr. Mercier and her team discovered a new biomarker in the primary tumor of colorectal cancer patients. When the patient didn’t have the biomarker, they survived an average of 14 months longer than patients who had elevated levels of the biomarker.

Dr. Isabelle Mercier and Megan Shuminski PharmD'21“What we see in patients, we reconstruct in the lab as close as possible, so we grow little tumors,” said Dr. Mercier. “We look at how they grow, how fast they grow, how well they respond to therapy, and then we have a better prediction of how the therapy is going to do in a living model.”

Shuminski’s job was to design the 3D models for colorectal cancer that they then studied throughout the summer.

“It honed in on so many skills that I learned from so many of my classes here at USciences and really improved my confidence as a student,” she said. “I’m so thankful that they saw something in me to give me this project.”

Dr. Mercier hopes the information they learned can now be applied for future grants to begin using it in living models and potentially clinical trials to keep cancer at its primary stage, or -- even better -- making it a chronic disease.

“That’s something that I think about every day when I wake up,” said Dr. Mercier. “To have something that would make cancer a chronic and treatable disease that would not end in this mortality rate that is still very, very high.”

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