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Biology students work to create “monkey wrenches” to stop cancer cell progression

By Melissa Stanz

Ted Meigs and senior Ellyn Montgomery

Meigs and senior Ellyn Montgomery examine a petri dish for growth of bacteria containing a modified gene.

Odds are most of us know someone touched by cancer. And too many of us also know the horrible toll that chemotherapy drugs and radiation take as they kill cancer and other cells to stop cancer cell progression.

A dedicated group of UNC Asheville students working with Ted Meigs, associate professor of Biology, is conducting research on proteins within cells that may lead to creating molecular “monkey wrenches” that delay or even stop these proteins from interacting. Stunting or eliminating the protein interactions may keep cancer cells from metastasizing— which could eventually lead to new treatments for cancer.

“When we learn which proteins interact with each other, we can create ways to stop those interactions. With this research, the scientific community will have better information about these protein functions that hopefully will lead to more discoveries about how cancer cells work,” said Meigs. “What I hope is that this gives rise to more accurate and targeted medicines that have fewer side effects and are less damaging to normal, healthy cells.”

The research is funded by a $50,000 grant (renewable for a second year) from the University Cancer Research Fund, which is managed by the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill.

“When we learn which proteins interact with each other, we can create ways to stop those interactions.”

— Associate Professor of Biology Ted Meigs

Last year, former N.C. Rep. Wilma Sherrill of Asheville introduced Meigs to Shelton Earp, Lineberger professor and director of the Center. Shortly thereafter, Earp invited Meigs to present a seminar in Chapel Hill, which quickly led to an offer for Meigs to become an affiliate member of the Lineberger Center.

Meigs is the first professor outside UNC Chapel Hill to receive this distinction. “This is a huge honor; a highlight of my career, and I’m very grateful,” said Meigs.

Working with Meigs on the cancer research are UNC Asheville seniors Brandon Booker, Joseph Martin, Ellyn Montgomery and William Smolski. The $50,000 grant provides stipends so the students can work full time in the lab and focus solely on this research. Meigs notes that this talented undergraduate group is learning how to grow genetically engineered cells and splice DNA to encode specialized proteins, skills that are usually learned in graduate school.

Smolski, a Hendersonville, N.C., native, thoroughly enjoys doing this lab work. “I want to make a contribution, to know that something I worked on made a difference; that it really mattered,” he said.

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