Chemotherapy is known for its devastating effects on the human body, from drastic weight and hair loss to extreme frailty, as much as it is known as a cancer treatment. However, UCF graduate student Rebecca Boohaker attempts to offer an alternative treatment through her groundbreaking research, one in which chemotherapy may no longer be required.
Boohaker, who received her B.S. in biology with a minor in chemistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is currently going for her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at UCF.
Drawn to UCF’s tight-knit program, Boohaker said her passion for her work was natural and something potentially beneficial for future generations.
“Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by cancer in some shape or form, so I was drawn to it,” Boohaker said. “[This research] is something I can see … easily turn into a treatment or a cure, so it seems like the payoff is more imminent.”
Her research involves cell deaths, the process by which cells naturally — or in this case purposefully induced — die. Boohaker uses what she refers to as a “peptide in a nanoparticle, [or] peptide therapy,” where a protein-based solution — a peptide — is given to a patient through an IV. Unlike chemo’s aggressive attack strategy, this protein is more subtle in removing cancer cells.
Boohaker said that, like a clock, every part of a cell has a purpose, and if one part is not working properly, the others will fail to function accordingly. Once injected, this protein attacks cancer cells by making simple changes, what Boohaker refers to as “turning on or off” certain switches in the cell, thereby triggering the cell’s death. Through this death, cancer cells are eliminated, while normal cells are left alone without any noted negative side effects.
“Even though they’re immortal, [cancer cells] still have all the inner workings of a normal cell,” Boohaker said. “They just may not be active or under-expressed, or even overexpressed. If we can utilize what we know, then we can maybe turn things on when they ordinarily would have been turned off, or not, and that’s [what will] play into cancer therapy.”
Senior Rachele Mehl, a pre-clinical health major, found Boohaker’s research interesting. Mehl said that if it could really work without any negative side effects, it could become a major scientific breakthrough.
“I think if she can actually get that to work, it’s incredible. That could potentially change how cancer is treated everywhere,” Mehl said. “If that is the more effective method, people would [go] through a lot less pain with chemo. I know chemo has so many negative side effects; normally chemo targets all the cells, and [so] all the cells end up dying. That’s why people get so weak, and it’s so terrible and hard to do chemo. To target just those cells … I’d be curious to see if there really are no side effects. You’re still killing a lot of cells in the body, and I wonder how the body would take that.”
Boohaker recently received the Rudy J. Wodzinski Memorial Endowed Scholarship for “learning, creative problem solving and scientific inquiry” through her research. She will also be giving a presentation this Saturday at the American Association for Cancer Research conference in Chicago. During her presentation, Boohaker will be discussing her research, cell death and innovative and alternative cancer treatments.
Boohaker felt that her research could lead to other financial benefits, both for interested companies and the university.
“There’s the opportunity to patent the drug,” Boohaker said. “If it is promising, then of course there’s always the hope that some pharmaceutical company that will pick it up and mass-produce it, and the university would benefit from that.”
Boohaker knows that her research still has a long way to go before it can begin to help others, with more trials planned for mice, also known as “cell lines,” as well as tests to determine the best way to deliver the protein to patients. Though she will have finished the program long before this research could be implemented as a standardized medical therapy, she still feels it could become a future cancer treatment.
“We can use this as a way to bypass normal chemotherapy … and just use this particular treatment, or we can use this as a way to enhance what already exists so you can have faster, more efficient results in the treatment without damaging your body,” Boohaker said. “That’s the problem with most chemotherapies, because not only do you get the cancer, but you tear up your body. And from what we’ve seen, it seems we might be able to avoid that.”