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MMBIO CURA Winner Researches a New Technique to Fight Cancer

Cancer is the second highest cause of death in the United States with around 500,000 deaths per year, making it crucial for researchers to find treatments. BYU Life Sciences student, Joshua Bennett (MMBIO ’23), has engaged in this effort. His findings won the first place award for the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology at this year’s College Undergraduate Research Awards (CURA) conference.

While current treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can combat cancer, both have side effects that damage any rapidly growing cells such as those found in hair and nails. Immunotherapies and other experimental techniques are able to target only the cancer cells. Bennett’s research focused on making antibodies that mark cancer cells for macrophages and neutrophils to attack.

A yellow cancer cell displays the TK1 marker and is being targeted by antibodies.
Photo by Joshua Bennett

To test these antibodies, Bennett and fellow researchers grew yeast cells that were engineered to contain the cancer-killing antibody. The antibody attacks a TK1 protein found on the surface of cancer cells but not on healthy cells. The yeast and TK1 protein were cultured together to find what antibodies can bind best with the unique cancer biomarker (TK1). After incubation, the cells were supplied through a number of sorting processes to see if the antibody took in the yeast. The researchers then tested the cells to verify that the immunotherapies were drawn to attack the antibody marker (TK1).

While other cancer therapies can be as effective (such as therapy that utilizes reengineered Killer T-cells (CAR T-cells) to target cancerous growths), antibody markers are inexpensive and easier to produce. However, further studies need to be completed before antibody markers may be prescribed.

A man with brown hair in a white lab coat pipettes blue liquid out of a vial.
Photo by Joshua Bennett

Bennett was drawn to this project because of his desire to help those with chronic illnesses. His mother had an autoimmune disorder that caused her to lose feeling and motor control of her body. “It started in her hand, and then spread throughout her body, so she couldn't move anything,” Bennett says. She made a full recovery but the episode sparked Bennett’s interest in understanding the biological background of disease treatment.

The most fascinating part of the research for Bennett was learning about immunology and the creation of therapeutic drugs. He also internalized the scientific method more than he thought possible: “There's a lot of trial and error that I had never thought about. A lot of projects end up taking years from start to finish because there's things like optimizing protocol, finding out why something failed, etc.”

Bennett hopes to pursue a master’s and PhD in immunology or study law. Either way, he aspires to help others, particularly those struggling with autoimmune disorders. To read more of Bennett’s research, read his article here.

A majority of Bennett’s research was sponsored by the Simmons Center for Cancer Research at Brigham Young University. The endowment aids students in their research pursuits of finding ways to cure cancer.