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K-State professor's cancer research gets boost from National Institutes of Health

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Understanding how cancer cells communicate with each other and how to enhance their receptiveness to drug treatments is the focus of promising work by a Kansas State University researcher.

Annelise Nguyen, assistant professor of toxicology in the department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, recently received a $370,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue her cancer research.

"For the past five years I've focused on cell communication to understand the pathways between cells," Nguyen said. "The idea that I came up with is: What if giving a patient drugs, including chemotherapeutic drugs and pain relievers, actually shuts down cell communication, preventing the drug from passing from one cell to the next? If so, the drug isn't very effective, and that's why you have to increase dosages to reach most cells. Increasing the drug levels makes you resistant to the drug itself; thus, drug resistance is one of the challenges in the treatment of cancer."

Nguyen has worked with K-State's Duy Hua, university distinguished professor of chemistry, to synthesize a new compound a class of substitute quinolines and found that it possessed potent inhibitory activities against T47D breast cancer cells.

"What I demonstrate with this compound is that it enhances cell communication in breast cancer cells," Nguyen said. "What if we reopen the channels where cancer cells have low cell communication activity? In conjunction with existing chemotherapeutic drugs, can we reduce the concentration of these drugs by treating the patient with our cell communication enhancer? If so, the toxicity of these drugs will pass from cell to cell much more efficiently than previously. That's what this grant is all about."

The compound has been successful enough that Hua and Nguyen have applied for a patent. Nguyen said her work may have potential for more than just breast cancer treatments.

"Colon cancer cells behave very similarly to breast cancer cells, where the loss of cell communication is also observed, so I've applied this concept to colon cancer as well," she said. " We're also working to see if it will apply to prostate cancer."

Nguyen is giving K-State students a chance to help with her work. As an Asian-American faculty member, she said she embraces the responsibility to be a role model and mentor for minority students at K-State by letting them work in her lab. She uses students in the Developing Scholars Program, an initiative at K-State that matches historically underrepresented students, students of color and first-generation college students in research projects with faculty members. Current students in her lab have Hispanic and Asian backgrounds.

"I really want to reach out to all these students," she said. "I can relate to those who are struggling with bilingual communication, being first-generation college students or being from traditional families who have different standards for their daughters than they do for their sons. I've been there, and now I'm in a career where I do the work I love. I hope I can help others do the same."

Nguyen's journey to becoming a toxicologist and cancer researcher faced plenty of challenges. She was born in Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. Her father, a member of the South Vietnam Air Force, fled to the United States in 1975. It took him nine years to get U.S. citizenship and permission from the new government in Vietnam to bring his family to the United States.

"I didn't start school until I was almost 11 years old I didn't know how to read and write," Nguyen said. "My mom didn't want me to enroll in a communist school in Vietnam, so she kept me at home. Then we came to the United States and I started school."

Nguyen had to play catch-up in her studies. She was a quick learner and went on to attend Texas A&M University.

"My sophomore year in college I took a biochemistry class, and when it came to the topic of hormonal regulation and how estrogen is made and synthesized, I fell in love," she said. "When I had the opportunity to go to graduate school I picked a professor who studied an estrogen receptor, even though I didn't really understand the disease of breast cancer. The No. 1 known risk factor for breast cancer is lifetime exposure to estrogen, so that was the beginning of my journey to this kind of research, particularly breast cancer."

Nguyen eventually earned a doctorate in toxicology through the veterinary college at Texas A&M University.


Contact: Annelise Nguyen
Kansas State University

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