August 15, 2022 by
Kate Strotmeyer, M.Ed.
As the inaugural Juckett Summer Student Scholar, Prior received $3000 from the UVM Cancer Center to dedicate her summer to understanding how rewired glutamine metabolism in STK11-null NSCLC cells is related to metastatic spread.
Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in Vermont and about 85% of patients will be diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Treating this disease can be challenging because it’s often detected late when it’s already spreading rapidly.
University of Vermont Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences doctoral candidate, Shannon Prior (UVM ‘14) in collaboration with UVM Cancer Center members David Seward, MD PhD and Paula Deming, PhD, Associate Dean in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences are diving into the cellular gymnastics that occur in a subset of dysregulated NSCLC cells. Their focus? A tumor suppressor called STK11 that is often nonfunctional in NSCLC resulting in worsened patient outcomes. “Mutations are a common characteristic of cancer cells and STK11 is known to down-regulate cell growth and other tumor-promoting properties. When STK11 can’t do its job, due to a mutation, the cells proliferate, take on metastatic properties and become resistant to treatments, making them more aggressive,” said Deming.
As the inaugural Juckett Summer Student Scholar, Prior received $3000 from the UVM Cancer Center to dedicate her summer to understanding how rewired glutamine metabolism in STK11-null NSCLC cells is related to metastatic spread. Because cancer cells proliferate at a high and uncontrolled rate, they often exhibit increased dependence on glutamine to sustain the fuel needed for such growth. Clinical trials are currently investigating the use of glutaminase inhibitors to “starve” tumors, however the feasibility and efficacy of this treatment in NSCLC remains to be established.
"Regarding STK11-null NSCLC, we know that this subtype exhibits increased dependence on glutamine to maintain growth and survival,” said Prior. “Our preliminary results suggest that “starving” these cells of glutamine results in rewired metabolism and exacerbation of their aggressive phenotype. My current work aims to identify how the rewired metabolism and utilization of glutamine promotes metastasis.”
A clear understanding of how glutamine availability impacts cancer progression in STK11-null NSCLC is critical considering the current investigation of glutaminase inhibitors as a therapeutic option for NSCLC patients. “Downstream, the potential clinical impact of this work massive. Currently, glutaminase inhibitors, in conjunction with standard chemotherapy, are thought to be a promising treatment for glutamine-addicted cancers. However, our data suggests this approach may be contraindicated in patients with STK11-null cancers,” said Deming.
Prior is one of nine students working on cancer research this summer. On paper, each $3,000 award winner has a distinct project, a UVM Cancer Center member who serves as their mentor, and $1,000 to provide lab supplies. But, beyond the financial incentives, the summer program is both a resume and relationship builder. “Providing students a track record of grant success and scholarship makes them more competitive to secure a competitive post-doctoral position and extramural funding in the future,” said Deming.
The UVM Cancer Center will host its annual Summer Student Fellows Poster Session on Wednesday, September 14 from 9:00 a.m. – Noon in the Hoehl Gallery (Health Science Research Facility Gallery Lobby).
Related: UVM Cancer Center Announces Summer 2022 Student Fellowships in Cancer Research Awardees