Students contributing to professor's national breast cancer research project | Earlham College
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Michael Lerner, associate professor of physics, discusses a network of biochemical interactions in a cell with first-year student Akilah Goldson.

Students contributing to professor's national breast cancer research project

November 13, 2020

Editor’s note: Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number F33CA247344 and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund under award number 1019964. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Earlham College Associate Professor of Physics Michael Lerner has been awarded an extension from the National Institute of Health to continue breast cancer research through the fall term that began last year with collaborators from Johns Hopkins University.

Four undergraduate students from Earlham will join Lerner in an effort to predict and target the genetic drivers of breast cancer metastasis, the spread from the site of origin to secondary locations in the body. Lerner is lending his expertise in statistical physics to analyze how information flows through biological networks in order to identify new points of intervention for cancer therapies.

“This extension gives me the time and funding to continue this work and set up computational tools at Earlham, the same tools I’ve been using from Johns Hopkins University,” Lerner said. “The collaboration with Johns Hopkins means I can still use their resources, but the extension lets me do everything in house at Earlham and involve students in a project that can contribute to development of potential anti-cancer drugs.”

Lerner was awarded the highly competitive Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Seniors Fellows last spring as part of his 2019-20 sabbatical research agenda from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute. His fellowship is part of a collaboration with JHU’s Joel Bader and Andy Ewald and was one of only two actively funded “F33” fellowships across the entire NIH for this funding cycle. He also is the recipient of a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Collaborative Research Training Grant in support of travel and lodging, which allowed him to work fulltime in experimental and computational laboratories at Johns Hopkins in fall 2019.

“Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the world, and in the United States,” Lerner said. “While cancer therapies almost exclusively target tumor growth and cell proliferation, for breast cancer and many other cancers, mortality is due to metastasis. Unfortunately, many of the molecular requirements of metastasis remain unknown.”

The multidisciplinary project incorporates mathematics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry and computer science, Lerner notes.

“Nobody knows all those things,” he said. “Nobody even knows most of those things. It can be pretty intimidating at the beginning, but what really means is that there are opportunities for students from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines to contribute to the success of the project.”

Akilah Goldson, a first-year student from New Haven, Connecticut, joined Lerner’s research group in August. Despite being new to Earlham, she already has previous experience as a research intern at Yale University’s Nanobiology Institute, which she completed during her junior year of high school.

“I just think it’s an insane opportunity,” Goldson said of the research project at Earlham. “Almost everybody knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer. To work on something that could help hundreds of thousands of people, it’s a wonderful feeling, knowing that this could help someone.”

Lerner is a computational biophysicist who studies membranes, lipids, computational oncology, and biomolecular dynamics, to examine problems from basic physics to drug design. He teaches courses that include Thermal and Statistical Physics, Matter in Motion, Biophysics, and Student Research in Physics.

The grant will also further will strengthen connections between Lerner’s research group on campus and Johns Hopkins by adding relevant computational oncology modules in his introductory and upper-level physics courses.

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