The Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB was designed to connect research-minded undergraduates with world-renowned researchers, offering students a head start on their careers and investigators a group of eager assistants. It’s a unique opportunity available nowhere else in Alabama—and as three current students explain, the idea has been an unqualified success.
VIRAL VISION Christy Foster is testing a novel approach to cancer treatment in the lab of gene-therapy researcher David Curiel.
As she prepares for graduate school, senior chemistry student Christy Foster already has plenty of material for the “Experience” section of her resume. In fact, if she wanted to, she could add this eye-catching line: 2007-present—Tested a potential cure for cancer.
Foster has been working in the lab of gene-therapy researcher David T. Curiel, M.D., Ph.D., on a novel method to tackle cancer. Instead of going after tumor cells directly, Curiel’s lab is recruiting the body’s natural defenses to fight off the disease. Normally, mast cells from the immune system are incapable of binding with—and destroying—cancer cells because they do not have the proper receptors to make the connection. So Curiel’s lab set out to engineer the match artificially, designing a protein “linker” coated in antibodies that are capable of attaching to both cancer cells and mast cells.
“I took part in testing to make sure the linker worked,” Foster says. “I was able to run the assays to see how well the mast cells actually stick to the tumor cells. The next step is to see if the mast cells have the ability to kill those tumor cells.”
The opportunity to be involved in meaningful research as an undergraduate—along with an innate curiosity about biology and genetics—led Foster to join the Science and Technology Honors Program, where she quickly learned essential laboratory skills and met researchers who were happy to share their expertise. “Our first semester here, we had the benefit of listening to a lot of scientists come in and talk about their work,” Foster says. “We were able to get our feet wet and see what was available. It was good to have that connection.”
In her own future career as a physician and researcher, Foster hopes to continue connecting clinical problems with innovative solutions. “I want to look at a disease in a clinical setting and then take that information to the lab and see what we can do to fix it,” she says. In fact, she already has a disease in mind. “My mom has diabetes, and as a kid, I was always curious about why she was going through treatments and giving herself shots,” says Foster. “I’d like to take the genetics experience I already have and look at diabetes.”
In the meantime, Foster still has work to do in Curiel’s lab, where the modified mast cells she has been studying may soon be ready for their trial by fire. “Will they be able to find the tumor cells in a living person or a living animal?” she says. “That’s the last step. We’ll see.”