by Angela Herring

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.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on January 27, 2014.