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NDSU undergraduate student participates in research to combat cancer

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North Dakota State University senior Nathan Fix sees his research efforts as small advances in the continuing battle against pancreatic cancer.

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Working in the laboratory of Katie Reindl, assistant professor of biological sciences, Fix is a microbiology and philosophy double major who plans to go to medical school.

“In general, we work with compounds isolated from natural products. We want to see molecularly how they affect cancer cell behavior,” explained Fix, who is from Jamestown.

Fix is specifically focusing on a compound called piperlongumine, which is found in peppers. The compound is believed to inhibit tumor growth with no toxicity for normal cells. Fix wants to find out more.

Using high-technology equipment to analyze cell samples arranged in Petri dishes or 96-well plates, Fix looks for answers at the molecular level. The work is complicated and intricate, but in layman’s terms, Fix is exploring a protein produced by the cancer cells that allows them to grow and survive in low-oxygen environments. He hopes to learn how piperlongumine reacts with that protein and explore how it can be used to combat cancer cells.

“This isn’t a cure, but along with chemo-therapeutic drugs, the natural products will help target and hopefully stop cancer cell growth,” said Fix. “I just hope to contribute to the work and maybe produce a research paper that shows we are moving forward within the field.”

According to Reindl, Fix has excelled in the lab, demonstrating initiative and outstanding time management skills.

“Nathan has a contagious enthusiasm for research that has made working with him in the lab so enjoyable,” Reindl said. “He is eager to learn and willing to contribute whatever he can to advance our research.”

“I love learning, and Dr. Reindl has been able to teach me a ton of techniques. She challenges me to think,” Fix said of his laboratory experience. “I’ve really learned an appreciation for science. In class, there is a right and wrong answer. But in the lab, I sometimes get no answer. That didn’t work — now what?”

During the summer months, Fix developed a new lab protocol for isolating and harvesting mouse pancreatic cells in order to study the effects of natural dietary agents. He described that as an example of many opportunities undergraduate students have at NDSU.

“Here at NDSU, there is so much research going on and there are a lot of undergraduate experiences to be had,” Fix said. “Most professors have room in their labs for an undergraduate to learn.”

Reindl said undergraduate research gives students a chance to apply the lessons they learned in the classroom.

“As I work with my undergraduates, I strive to help them relate book knowledge with the practical application of that knowledge,” she said. “Just the other day, we were learning about protein structure in cell biology and I was able to explain to my undergraduate research assistants what effect a certain denaturing agent would have on protein folding and subsequent detection in our assay.”

National Institutes of Health grant P30 GM103332-01 supports the research in Reindl’s lab.

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