Cardiologists Turned Cancer Researchers

May Lin Yap is a molecular imaging master and PhD student at Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

May Lin Yap is a molecular imaging master and PhD student at Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. She took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to give us a rundown of the innovative and important research they’re doing….

With her background in molecular imaging, May Lin has found herself in a pretty interesting spot, one where her imaging skills collide with antibody development, cardiovascular complication research, platelet investigation, and now even cancer research. She’s an ace with PET/CT and fluorescence imaging and spends her time in the institute’s Atherothrombosis lab researching this cardiovascular disease. Professor Karlheinz Peter, a cardiologist at the Alfred Hospital and deputy director of Baker Heart and Diabetes institute, leads the Atherothrombosis lab, and is focused on the role of platelets in cardiovascular diseases and complications, like blood clots.

The lab has spent the last ten years developing an antibody that can detect activated platelets, the cells that coagulate and stem bleeding when you get a cut. In each experiment, May Lin attaches fluorescent material to the antibody to allow the lab to actually “see” where the antibody ends up (hopefully on the platelets). After playing around with antibody formulas and dosages, the lab arrived at an antibody that was highly successful at locating platelets. But Karlheinz Peter’s lab didn’t stop there, they wanted to see what other applications this platelet finding antibody might have…..

A Pivot….

Tumors attract platelets, they’re covered in them. They attract the same kind of platelets that the lab’s antibody so accurately locates. Could this antibody then also be used to find and treat cancerous tumors therapeutically? By focusing on platelets rather than cancer cells themselves, this lab has taken a different approach to cancer treatment, one that is arguably simpler and more efficient.

A new experiment…Can this antibody find cancerous tumors?

The next step was to investigate whether or not this antibody could successfully find cancerous tumors. Cancers are all highly unique and require different treatment based on the specific molecules or “markers” that they present. Cancer drugs must find these markers in order to determine which cells to destroy. But this is more difficult with some cancers and many “good” cells also end up being destroyed. The lab recognized that their antibody could be a powerful diagnostic tool for locating cancerous tumors by focusing on the platelets they attract.

Again, May Lin attached fluorescent materials to the antibody to allow the lab to visualize where the antibody ended up. So far, the antibody has successfully located twelve different cancer types, and it looks like a promising solution for locating many others.

But finding the cancerous cells is just step one. The lab decided to push their research even further to investigate how this nimble antibody might be paired with chemotherapy drugs to not only find cancer but to treat it.

The next step… can this antibody be used in therapy?

A chemotherapy drug was combined with the platelet loving antibody. The lab then tried to find, treat and destroy different kinds of cancers. After many attempts with different dosages and cancers the lab began to focus more specifically on the triple negative breast cancer model.

This specific type of breast cancer is tricky to treat if not caught early. There are no specific markers that can be targeted making it difficult for cancer drugs to find the right cells to destroy. Many treatments fail because of these side effects. However, this antibody and chemotherapy drug combination has located, treated and destroyed three types of cancer thus far.

Karlheinz Peter on his lab’s work….

“It’s totally outside of normal cancer research. People are fixated on the cancer cell itself. The role of the platelets as a diagnostic tool has not been looked at so far – that’s what makes this story so interesting.”

(The Sydney Morning Herald)

By targeting the commonality between cancers, the platelets, this approach has the potential to affect and treat a wide range of cancers.

Documenting discovery….

In order to run enough experiments for their research the lab needs more than a few cancer and antibody cells. The lab has over 2000 cell lines in liquid nitrogen. On any given day, May Lin will have ten different cancer lines growing in an incubator. She freezes these lines, prepares them for experiments, and cultures them while they are incubating.

May Lin carefully records every in vitro and cell culture experiment she completes in LabArchives. With so many trials, it is crucial that dosages, cancer lines, and antibody types are all securely recorded so that no failure or success is overlooked when the team begins to analyze their findings.

With such a broad scope of research going on in one lab (cardiovascular research, platelet investigation, animal studies, hundreds of cancer lines in culture) the lab must stay organized. And now, with two published papers and noteworthy findings, proper documentation of their research is more important than ever. The Karlheinz Peter Lab uses LabArchives as their lab book and data repository to cover all their bases.

Post publication….

As May Lin notes, “Record keeping is a crucial aspect of publishing a paper. The Australian research guidelines require raw data to be kept for at least five years following publication, and during this time the journal has the right to ask for access to these data.” Imagine trying to track down endless paper notebooks, raw data printed on paper, and paper analyses five years after publishing your findings. Sounds like a total nightmare.

May Lin feels that, “As a student, scientist, and employee of the Baker Institute, proper data documentation is a major responsibility and a common part of day to day tasks.” The lab’s important findings have to remain rooted in the data long after publication and not just for documentation purposes but also for the longevity and continuation of the research itself.

The lab keeps all their data in LabArchives so that as lab members come and go no data gets lost and the research’s progression remains visible and secure. With any research, but especially with research of this gravity, loosing data is simply not an option. Being able to understand the data’s life cycle makes researchers more effective and successful leading to greater understanding, discovery, and change. We look forward to seeing what Karlheinz Peter’s Lab discovers next!

Thank you to everyone in Karlheinz Peter’s lab for your work and especially to May Lin Yap for taking the time to give us a glimpse into your lab, your work, and your discoveries.

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