National Institutes of Health awards Fairfield University science faculty members $433,000 for cancer research


Two Fairfield University science faculty members, one in biology and one in physics, have each been awarded National Institutes of Health grants in excess of $200,000 to conduct research in the detection and treatment of cancer.

Image: Shelley A. PhelanShelley A. Phelan, Ph.D., Elizabeth DeCamp McInerny Professor of Health Sciences and associate professor of biology, has been awarded a $214,000 NIH grant to continue research she has been conducting for 10 years into a family of antioxidant genes that have been implicated in several different diseases, most recently in cancer.

The genes, called peroxiredoxins, make proteins that protect cells from specific stresses that can damage them. Breast cancers produce elevated levels of these antioxidants, but it is unclear whether this is a cause or effect of the cancerous state. Dr. Phelan says, "Given their function, these proteins may be able to protect cells from becoming cancerous, but also may prevent cancer cells from dying. My hypothesis is that they do both, suggesting a novel and complex mechanism for the regulation of cancer."

This NIH grant will allow Dr. Phelan to examine the precise role of these proteins in the prevention and maintenance of breast cancer cells, and understand how cancer cells alter their control of these genes at the DNA level. Dr. Phelan plans to supplement the NIH grant, which runs through the end of 2011, with funding from her DeCamp McInerney Chair of Health Sciences appointment. She said, "This is a brand new area of cancer research, so I'm excited to be playing a role in it."

Image: Min XuMin Xu, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, has been awarded a $219,395 NIH grant to develop a new technique for the evaluation of potential cancers, such as skin, colon, and cervical cancers.

Based on the rapid development and successful application of light to medicine in recent decades, Dr. Xu's long-term goal is to develop a diagnostic and prognostic tool for microscopic imaging of the superficial layer of tissue, based on low coherence enhanced backscattering of light.

Dr. Xu says, "The penetraton of light can be confined within the epithelia, the superficial layer of tissue where most cancer initiates and cancer may be detected at its earliest stage using this technique."

Dr. Xu's NIH grant continues through the end of June, 2011.

Dr. Phelan and Dr. Xu both engage undergraduate students in their research, a hallmark of the science program at Fairfield University. As a result, many of these students who continue their studies in graduate school find that they are well prepared for the challenge and are often ahead of their peers in preparation and experience.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on August 10, 2009

Vol. 42, No. 25