Major: Biomedical Science
Mentor: Matthew Salanga, Richard Posner, Catherine Propper
Undergraduate making an impact searching for cancer-fighting drugs
When it comes to cancer research, senior Phillip Kalaniopio is a self-proclaimed “nosy person.” He is putting that inquisitive nature to work on a project looking for effective drug combinations to treat the deadliest form of skin cancer—melanoma.
“I’ve had a lot of family members that have had or still have cancer. It’s one of those diseases that infuriates me, because there is no answer to it, right?” he said. “I just want to know the answer. This is my opportunity to figure it out, essentially.”
Kalaniopio is part of a project headed by biological sciences assistant professor Matthew Salanga and professor Richard Posner. Salanga and Posner received a $100,000 grant from the Flinn Foundation to test novel drug combinations in the treatment of melanoma, in partnership with scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Kalaniopio is involved in multiple stages of the study, which uses zebrafish as test subjects because of their genetic similarity to humans, with 80 percent of genes linked to human disease also being expressed in these fish. The zebrafish in Salanga’s lab are humanized, that is they carry a gene from humans associated with cancer —BRAFV600E. Kalaniopio explains that the humanized zebrafish are albino, without their namesake zebra stripes, which protects them from melanoma. At the embryonic stage, he and others in the lab give them back their stripes by injecting them with a plasmid —used to add transgenes to the fish’s genome—called MiniCoopR.
“By adding the transgene and having the BRAF mutation in their background, the fish recovers its stripes and its susceptibility to melanoma, which in our experience, presents at around four to six months of age,” he said.
Posner and his group, including Kalaniopio, conduct computational modeling to determine the right combination of kinase inhibitor drugs to test on the fish with melanoma. After the fish are treated with the drugs, Kalaniopio and others euthanize the fish and measure the amount of cancer causing protein in order to see if the drug combinations achieved the desired outcome.
“I probe to find out whether the cellular signal has lessened,” Kalaniopio said. “And if that’s there and at lower levels than, say, a fish that didn’t get this treatment, then we can pretty conclusively say that, yes, this treatment, to some degree, worked.”
Kalaniopio aspires to conduct cancer research. He initially was planning on going into medicine but his undergraduate research experience changed his goals. “I realized how much of a difference I can make by doing this type of research,” he said. “I feel like I can really make an impact.”
Mentors helped him grow and learn how to be a scientist
Kalaniopio’s mentors, Salanga, Posner and biological sciences professor Catherine Propper, have helped him grow as a researcher. “They’re never that easy on me because research isn’t easy,” he said. “They let me figure it out on my own, and they’ll help me if I really need help. But they’ve been really good mentors for me to learn how to be a scientist.”
Kalaniopio is proud to be a first-generation student and Native Hawaiian. He is also proud of his research and the Hooper Undergraduate Research Award (HURA) he received for his work on Salanga’s uranium toxicity project. He credits NAU staff and programs for helping him as he worked through his undergraduate degree, especially Tina Zecher, assistant director, Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, and Jen Johnson, senior program coordinator, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). LSAMP funded two conference trips and helped fund his work with research projects.
“Those programs really have helped me a lot,” he said. “They helped me forge my path through school. I’ve decided I want to do this whole research thing as my career.”