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Cancer cells

Innovation in cancer treatment and mathematics: SciRIS awardees lead the way

By Hannah Ashton

SciRIS awards bolster essential research endeavors, such as the investigation of human cancer cells (pictured above).

Collaborative science has the power to change the world. The 2024 College of Science Research and Innovation Seed (SciRIS) award recipients aim to use that power to develop better treatments for cancer and unlock the mysteries of complex mathematical equations.

The SciRIS program funds projects based on collaborative research within the College of Science community and beyond. There are two tracks through the program: SciRIS (Stages 1-3) and the SciRIS individual investigator award (SciRIS-ii).

SciRIS Stages 1-3 funds teams in three stages of increasing funding to support training, research and capacity-building, accelerating work toward external funding opportunities. SciRIS-ii funds individual faculty to establish research relationships with external partners, enabling them to demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas and quickening the pace of scientific discovery.

SciRIS Stage 1

Professor Claudia Maier, alongside a multidisciplinary team including researchers from the Colleges of Engineering and Agricultural Science, received a SciRIS Stage 1 award to study on triple-negative breast cancer.

Maier’s team includes two other College of Science researchers, Yanming Di from the Department of Statistics and Chad Giusti from the Department of Mathematics.

In biology, cells exhibit a range of diverse characteristics known as cellular heterogeneity, regardless if the overall biology appears uniform. This diversity influences disease progression, treatment outcomes and the likelihood of disease recurrence. Single-cell proteomics is an emerging technique that allows researchers to study these differences at the individual cell level.

Collaborating with faculty from the College of Engineering and the College of Agricultural Science, the team aims to refine a single-cell mass spectrometry workflow focusing on triple-negative breast cancer and specifically targeting therapy-induced senescent cells. Senescent cells eventually stop multiplying but don’t die off, leading to the continued release of chemicals that can trigger inflammation and damage healthy cells. This research builds upon previous work and collaboration, moving from technology development to practical application in biomedicine.

By understanding the heterogeneity within breast cancer and the role of senescent cells in treatment resistance, the researchers aim to develop methods for detecting and characterizing TIS cells from tissue samples. This information will be crucial for developing treatments that target these cells, potentially improving outcomes for TNBC patients.

Kyriakos Stylianou smiles for a photo.

Kyriakos Stylianou

SciRIS-ii (Individual Investigator)

The following three scientists received SciRIS-ii awards: Kyriakos Stylianou, Christine Escher and Xueying Yu.

Materials scientist Kyriakos Stylianou will use his SciRISii award to study a new, more efficient way to diagnose and treat cancer using advanced technology that combines imaging and therapy in one tiny package.

Theranostics is a novel cancer approach that uses radiotracers, compounds made of radiation and chemicals that selectively bind to a specific target in the body. The tracers identify and then deliver radioactive drug therapy to the tumor, resulting in better outcomes and personalized treatments.

Stylianou will explore using metal-organic frameworks to build the nanoparticles. His research will also look at utilizing boron neutron capture therapy, a promising approach to cancer treatment that results in minimal consequences to normal cells.

By combining gadolinium for imagining and carborane-based ligands—which include boron—for therapy, the MOF would be able to diagnose and treat cancer after being activated specifically in tumor microenvironments.

The successful demonstration of the theranostic capabilities of the MOFs in lab settings will mark the initial phase towards more complex studies conducted in living organisms.

Christine Escher in front of shrubbery

Christine Escher

Mathematics Professor Christine Escher will use her SciRISii award to delve into Global Riemannian geometry, a field studying the relationship between local and global geometric properties of space. Specifically, the focus is on understanding manifolds with lower curvature bounds by exploring symmetries.

Escher will be continuing to collaborate with Catherine Searle from Wichita State University, to achieve a comprehensive classification of such manifolds, contributing to a deeper understanding of Riemannian geometry.

Escher will be attending a semester-long program at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley entitled, “New Frontiers in Curvature: Flows, General Relativity, Minimal Submanifolds and Symmetry.” This opportunity facilitates collaboration and provides access to specialized resources. One of Escher’s Ph.D. students, Augustin Bosgraaf, will also participate in the program, further enhancing the mentorship and educational aspects of this research endeavor.

Xueying Yu

Xueying Yu

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Xueying Yu received a SciRISii grant to understand the behavior of dispersive equations, which are fundamental in describing various natural phenomena such as light transmission, charge transport in DNA and particle interaction in atoms. While these equations are widely used across physics and biology, their long-term behavior remains largely unexplored.

Collaborating with researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy, the University of New York at Binghamton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yu will focus on equations with variable coefficients which are more complex to analyze. The project aims to develop theories and tools to understand the long-term behavior of these variable coefficient dispersive equations, focusing on aspects like global well-posedness, scattering effects and unique continuation of solutions.

This project will not only contribute to advancing mathematical understanding but also have practical implications in various fields such as numerical simulations, optics, condensed matter, fluid mechanics and biology.