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Biology faculty expands on cancer research

2020-10-19-Ramneet-Kaur-research
Dr. Ramneet Kaur, right, and UNG students Briana Sargent, left, and Sonali Dutta are using a bioinformatics approach to research the use of natural products to treat triple negative breast cancer cells and prostate cancer cells.

Dr. Ramneet Kaur knows two things about triple negative breast cancer. It is aggressive and only responds to chemotherapy until it becomes resistant.

"Cancer cells are very smart," said the lecturer of biology at the University of North Georgia (UNG). "You can target one pathway to kill them, and they activate another pathway."

To help breast cancer patients, Kaur received a Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA) mini-grant in 2017 to explore the use of natural products to treat triple negative breast cancer cells. She tested many natural products and found turmeric, ginger, lemon peel, grapefruit and the herb ashwagandha to be effective in killing triple negative breast cancer cells.

In 2019, she received a professional development grant to check the effects of natural products on the triple negative breast cancer cells that were resistant to the chemotherapy drug, docetaxel.

Based on her research and its results, Kaur applied for and received a 2020 Presidential Incentive Award to test the same natural products on prostate cancer cells.

"The research project I am conducting has a strong backing," said Kaur, who conducted her post-doctorate research on prostate cancer. "If we find an answer, it will be great."

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime. About 1 in 41 men die from the disease, making it the second-leading cause of cancer death in American men.

"If cancer is caught at its initial stages, then treatment and survival of the patients is possible," Kaur said. "But it is usually not detected at an early stage. Its symptoms overlap with an enlarged prostate, so it is difficult to diagnose. Usually prostate cancer is diagnosed when it spreads to the skeletal system."

She explained there are two stages of prostate cancer: androgen dependent and androgen independent.

"The only treatment available to treat androgen independent prostate cancer is docetaxel," Kaur said. "Patients initially respond to docetaxel and later become resistant to it."

Docetaxel kills most of the cancer cells, but some cells are resistant and survive. These drug-resistant cancer cells exhibit stem cell markers and are enriched by the docetaxel treatment. These docetaxel resistant cells are responsible for the prostate cancer relapse. Kaur hopes the natural products work on resistant cells.

"Breast cancer and prostate cancer are related," she said. "The drug-resistant cells may be killed with the natural products based on my previous findings with triple negative breast cancer cells."

This research marks a new direction in the field of cancer biology.

"Using natural products which are well tolerated by the human body is not explored much to solve the drug-resistance problem in the field of oncology," Kaur said.

She and UNG students Briana Sargent and Sonali Dutta are currently using a bioinformatics approach to conduct the research. Kaur shifted to this different strategy because the COVID-19 pandemic restricts lab-based research projects.

"With bioinformatics approach, we do not need to work in the lab," Kaur said. "All work is done online."

Her students plan to present their work at the Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference in late October. This year the conference will be virtual because of COVID-19.

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