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Ferris Professor Searches for Cause of Melanoma

pictureBIG RAPIDS – To further explore the cause of melanoma, Ferris State University’s Dr. James D. Hoerter was recently awarded a three-year grant from the National Institute of Health. With the assistance of students and a set of genes found in zebrafish, Hoerter will set out to try and solve the puzzle presented by the deadliest form of human skin cancer: Melanoma.

“While in Ireland on a Fulbright Fellowship, I became fascinated with using zebrafish to study the role of stem cells in the development of melanoma,” Hoerter, professor of Biology, said. “The genes controlling stem cells in the skin are almost identical to humans. I knew this was the perfect way to determine how adult stem cells are damaged by the harmful rays of the sun. When I got back to Ferris, I immediately started to lay the groundwork for this project; I knew that it was one of the best research ideas I’d had in years.”

Hoerter explained that incidences of melanoma continue to rise in the United States, with more than 60,000 diagnoses and 8,000 lives claimed each year. The grant will allow him to make advances toward discovering the cause of melanoma, he said.

His hypothesis for the cause of this type of cancer differs from that of the current, long-standing hypotheses. He holds that it is not the mature melanocytes that accumulate abnormal mutations over time until critical genes are damaged, but rather that it is the actual melanocyte stem cells that are damaged and accumulate UV-induced mutations over time. Later in life, adult melanocytes regenerated from these damaged stem cells are more likely to be susceptible to sunlight or radiation from a tanning bed, he said.

“This project has the potential to profoundly influence our understanding of cancer development,” said Dr. Reinhold Hill, Ferris State College of Arts, Sciences and Education interim dean. “It also will provide a real-world experience for our students, giving them the opportunity to apply knowledge and skills learned in the classroom.”

Hoerter got a jump start on his research in 2009 after receiving a Ferris Foundation for Excellence Merit Grant, which he used to purchase a zebrafish habitat. “This habitat permits me to breed and rear hundreds of fish in a regulated environment that ensures the proper care and health of the fish,” he explained.

To test his hypothesis, Hoerter exposes zebrafish to water treated with a non-toxic chemical that eliminates all adult melanocytes in the fish, but does not eliminate the skin stem cells, which remain intact. Zebrafish boast of having unique zebra-like markings; eliminating the melanocytes in the fish temporarily bleaches the fish of their stripes.

This process does not harm the fish or cause them any pain but it does allow Hoerter and his students to isolate and study the effects of irradiation on the skin stem cells.

“This project has the potential to open up many new lines of research about where the initial steps leading to melanoma begin,” Hoerter explained. “This project will help to identify the variables promoting tumor formation, to determine what role UVA/UVB radiation of melanocyte stem cells plays in the development of melanoma and provide an exciting opportunity for undergraduate students to gain experience in research.”

Hoerter helps his students take advantage of this research opportunity by allowing them to participate in the various stages of study. This includes both breeding and rearing the zebrafish, caring for them, designing experiments, documenting results and identifying variables that influence UVB-induced damage.

Specifically, students employed by the Animal Care Facility play major roles in maintaining the colony. “My responsibility is to make sure all zebrafish are properly cared for according to the national guidelines for animal care,” said Becky Finder, Ferris Pharmacy student. Richard Marble, director of the Animal Care Facility, has also had a significant role in the management of the zebrafish colony since its inception in 2009.

“The opportunity to experience the process of research and all the variables that affect your results has really been an eye-opener for me,” said Ryan Freye, Ferris Pharmacy student.

“Research experiences can have a tremendous impact on the development of a student’s goals, career interests and marketability,” said Biological Sciences department Head Dr. Karen Strasser. “Dr. Hoerter’s project will also add a new dimension to the Ferris curriculum by using zebrafish as a model organism for teaching important biological principles in the classroom.”