Medical student awarded grant to help patients with colorectal cancer

colorectal cancer
Medical student Jean Sabile (left) in the lab with researcher Samy Lamouille

Jean Sabile, a third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has been awarded a Medical Student Initiation Grant by the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons to research the nature of cancer stem cells and how they communicate in colorectal cancer.

Sabile’s research mentors are Samy Lamouille, research assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and Farrell Adkins, colon and rectal surgeon with Carilion Clinic and assistant professor in the medical school.

Sabile will study the behavior of colorectal cancer stem cells in Lamouille’s lab at the research institute to determine how a malignancy develops, as well as how these cells communicate with each other and their environment.

“Cancer cells need to communicate in order to continue to grow and metastasize,” he said. “So what we want to do is modulate the stem cells’ communication to influence their overall growth. We want to find a target through which we can administer therapeutics — all in the context of colorectal cancer.”

Sabile is using a protein called Connexin43, which is known to play an important role in how cells communicate and is being studied for its therapeutic value in a number of areas, including brain cancer and cardiac arrhythmias. Connexin is widely studied in various labs in the research institute. Rob Gourdie, professor and director of the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, developed a peptide that binds to connexin and helps hinder cell communication.

“We have a lot of drugs that are effective at killing cancer cells,” Sabile said. “The problem is cancer stem cells tend to escape, sit and wait, and then come back.”

In addition to manufactured cell lines, Sabile is using cancerous colorectal tissue obtained with patients’ consent from Carilion Clinic in cooperation with Adkins.

“Having the patient tissue is critical to this project,” Sabile said.

“When I started, we saw that with the cell lines, the drug actually worked and killed a lot of the stem cells,” he said. “Now we are testing with human cancer tissue to see if we get the same results.”

Sabile and Lamouille will first determine if the colorectal stem cells contain a lot of connexin. If so, there is more likely a pathway through which to target cancerous cells. Secondly, they will investigate whether the peptide-connexin combination is an effective means of killing the cancer cells. If so, it could potentially be used as an additional drug, along with chemotherapy.

“I’m passionate about this project because this whole idea is kind of a novel concept,” Sabile said. “There’s not a drug out there like this in the field of cancer.”

Sabile presented his research at the national Cancer Stem Cell Conference this month. He anticipates research will be a large part of his future as a physician.

“Part of being a doctor, for me, means not only taking care of patients but also finding a way to translate my other passions in science and research into care; in short, how to translate science into hope. I cannot wait to see what we learn with this project.”

In addition to researching a potentially groundbreaking treatment for colorectal cancer, Sabile is also leaving a legacy at Virginia Tech Carilion by creating a repository of frozen patient tissue that will enable future scientists to take samples from which to study and gain knowledge.

“I want to know that what we do will assist the next generation of research,” he said. “Beyond my stay here, my mentors are going to continue to make valuable use of that tissue and gain interesting knowledge from it.”

Other members of the research team with whom Sabile is working are Jennifer Vaughan, oncologist with Carilion Clinic; Jamie Smyth, assistant professor in the research institute; and Leslie LaConte, assistant dean for research at the medical school and associate professor in the research institute.

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