Two Baylor University adjunct faculty members and a Baylor graduate student are working to develop vaccines against melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. In another project, a Baylor adjunct faculty member and a graduate student are researching islet cell transplantation to treat diabetes. These are just two of the latest examples of the research students are involved in through Baylor's Institute of Biomedical Studies.
With more than 30 students and nearly 40 adjunct faculty members, Baylor's Institute of Biomedical Studies is an interdisciplinary program in biomedical-related areas of science leading to the doctoral degree. The program combines graduate students with an extremely diverse faculty who are actively involved in basic and translational research, both at Baylor University in Waco and at the Baylor University Medical Center (BUMC) in Dallas.
Dr. Bob Kane, director of Institute of Biomedical Studies and an associate professor of chemistry at Baylor, said the melanoma project is a good example of the working relationship between the Institute of Biomedical Studies and BUMC. The Dallas faculty members regularly interact with students from the Waco campus by teaching courses, participating in videoconferencing and providing students with clinical relevant research opportunities.
"The partnership gives students the opportunity to conduct research in a much more clinical environment," Kane said. "The partnership has benefited both sides tremendously."
In the most recent project, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded a $3 million grant to the Baylor Research Institute, an affiliate of the Baylor Health Care System. The multi-year grant will fund three separate projects, all dealing with developing a vaccine against melanoma. Drs. Jacques Banchereau and Karolina Palucka, who both work for the Baylor Health Care System and are adjunct faculty at Baylor's Institute of Biomedical Studies, will each lead one of the projects.
"We are very excited about this funding," Palucka said. "We have seen remarkable successes from our earlier clinical trials, where some patients with end-stage melanoma are alive seven years later after a prognosis of only a few months to live."
The research will focus around using dendritic cells, which are considered the first-line of defense when people get sick. Melanoma and other cancers usually manage to evade the immune system, so researchers are specifically activating a patient's dendritic cells against melanoma. In the clinical trials, patients will receive the dendritic cell vaccine in combination with another anticancer drug.
"If everything goes according to plan, the dendritic cells, activated against melanoma, will signal the immune system to attack the cancer and destroy it," Banchereau said. "We have seen this type of response in other clinical trials where we have tested these dendritic cell-based cancer vaccines and are very encouraged by it."
A Baylor graduate student also will take part in the research. Chun-I Yu, who works in Dr. Palucka's lab, is testing the efficacy of the dendritic cell-based vaccines in a mouse that has a human immune system. Yu said the work will be very useful for measuring the immune response that humans mount against melanoma and how they respond to cancer treatments.
"With this model, we will be able to test individual parameters that may not be tested in the clinical trial for the best clinical outcome," Yu said. "I have great hope for this project and it's my honor to be working here."
And it seems students are hearing and benefiting from the partnership. In Yu's case, after receiving her bachelor degree and master's in zoology from National Taiwan University, she heard about dendritic cells immunology and the clinical trials underway at BUMC. Yu said she knew she wanted to be involved with the research, so she came to Baylor, completed her coursework in biomedical studies in 2004 and now is researching in Dallas to gain her Ph.D.
"I have been always fascinated by how the immune system fights pathogens," Yu said. "After reading a paper by Dr. Banchereau, I knew I wanted to be part of his team."
For more information, contact Dr. Kane at (254) 710-4556.