Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Tracey Bryant
University of Delaware

UD students explore careers in cancer genetics

Curtis Warren, an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, will be doing lab research this summer on a variant of the Breast Cancer Type 2 gene, found in the Family Cancer Risk Registry at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, to determine if it is a cancer-causing mutation.

Cancer casts a shadow of fear over many families. The disease will take the lives of a half-million Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Becky Grey, a senior majoring in biological sciences at the University of Delaware, wants to help people with a family history of cancer gain the upper hand in battling the disease. Her goal is to become a genetic counselor.

"I like the field because you can monitor for a change or alteration in a gene and help prevent health problems later on," Grey said. "I like being able to help people."

For the past several months, Grey has been interning two mornings a week with genetic counselor Zohra Ali-Khan Catts at Christiana Care Health System's Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark.

Grey's adviser, Mary C. Farach-Carson, professor of biological sciences at UD, and Ali-Khan Catts, a UD alumna, established the internship program last year.

Initially funded by a Transformation Grant from UD's College of Arts and Sciences, the internship now is a continuing initiative of Delaware's Center for Translational Cancer Research, which Farach-Carson directs.

The center, whose mission is to integrate scientific and clinical expertise to improve the quality of cancer care for patients, is a partnership of the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Christiana Care Health System's Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and UD, including the University's Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

"Thanks to this partnership, we're now able to offer our students a unique opportunity to explore career fields in cancer genetics, while also helping local families who have a history of the disease," Farach-Carson said.

Grey and Curtis Warren, who just completed his junior year at UD, worked at the Graham Cancer Center last summer, entering and organizing data in the Family Cancer Risk Registry. This database, which Ali-Khan Catts established when the center opened in 2002, includes information on nearly 700 families--encompassing more than 15,000 individuals--from Delaware and neighboring states who either have cancer or are at high risk of developing the disease.

"Family histories are a critical tool in identifying families with risk factors for cancer, as well as other diseases," Ali-Khan Catts said.

"Five to 10 percent of all cancers are hereditary, and those are the forms of the disease we are targeting," Ali-Khan Catts noted. "If we can learn how to best screen high-risk patients for cancer, then we can develop methods for screening moderate- and low-risk families for the disease."

During her internship, Grey said she has gained invaluable insight into what genetic counseling entails, from meeting with patients and taking in-depth family histories, to using a computer program to construct pedigrees, analyzing the genetic data for dominant or recessive traits, determining which patients are best suited for specific genetic tests, and helping patients interpret their test results.

University of Delaware senior Becky Grey, right, is learning firsthand about genetic counseling, thanks to an internship with Zohra Ali-Khan Catts, standing, at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, Del. The internship was established with the assistance of Grey's adviser, Prof. Mary C. Farach-Carson, left, who directs Delaware's Center for Translational Cancer Research.

"When genetic testing is done, which requires only a small blood sample, and the results come back, we help explain what they mean," Grey said.

"The guidance for patients who are genetically predisposed for breast cancer, for example, would be to get breast exams regularly and MRI screening," Grey noted. "They also have increased risks for ovarian cancer, which should be monitored in them, as well as in other members of their family."

The soft-spoken Grey said she initially was very shy in counseling sessions, but now she is able to talk comfortably with patients from all walks of life.

The internship also has made Grey more aware of her own family's genetic history, and that of her friends.

"It's definitely something you think about," she said. "As hard as it is to tell someone that they do have a genetic change, the positive side is that you could possibly prevent a problem--and to me, that's very worthwhile."

Grey also is using her experience to help other UD students. During the next year, she will be assisting Farach-Carson with the development of a new undergraduate program to give UD students a competitive edge when applying to graduate school for genetic counseling. Currently, there are only 27 graduate programs in the field in the United States, and most accept fewer than a dozen students per year.

"Genetic counseling is a very small field, but it's also an up-and-coming field," Grey said. "It's where I hope to be in the future," she noted, smiling.

As a result of his internship, Warren is now beginning laboratory research on breast cancer.

"In examining the genetic data in the cancer registry, we found this interesting mutation that hasn't been studied at all," he said.

The mutation is a variant of the Breast Cancer Type 2 (BRCA2) gene. The normal gene is involved in regulating cell division and suppressing tumor growth; however, when mutated, it can increase the risk of inherited breast cancer.

This summer, Warren will be working in Farach-Carson's lab to grow a cell line derived from normal breast cells. Then the mutant BRCA2 gene will be introduced into the cells to see if it transforms the normal cells into cancer cells. If so, a new cancer mutation will have been identified in a Delaware family, and the information will be added to international databases of known cancer-causing genes and mutations.

A native of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., Warren said he always wanted to do research, but before coming to UD, he didn't know that it would be on cancer.

Now he hopes his current research project will lead to a senior thesis. "It's really pretty neat," he said.

"These students are fantastic--amazing," Ali-Khan Catts said of UD's first genetics interns at the Graham Cancer Center. "They work hard and are eager to learn. We look forward to being involved with more students of such high caliber in the future."