Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer

Ferris’ Undergraduate Research Lab ‘On Right Track’ in Cancer Fight

Jim Hoerter and Alexandria CasillasOne question leads to another.

But eventually, James Hoerter hopes his work helps lead to answers.

The Ferris State University Biology professor runs a research program designed to understand what causes melanoma, a type of skin cancer that claims more than 8,000 lives each year in the United States. Hoerter maintains the disease may originate in skin stem cells, a theory backed by the latest Nobel Prize in medicine.

Two scientific researchers, whose individual discoveries prove the potential of stem cells to cure disease, earlier this month were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. John Gurdon, 79, of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, Britain and Shinya Yamanaka, 50, of Kyoto University of Japan share the $1.2 million prize for work Gurdon began 40 years ago and Yamanaka continued.

“This validates what we’ve been doing,” said Hoerter, who was a graduate student shortly after Gurdon became the first scientist to clone an animal, a frog, using DNA from an adult cell of another frog. “It’s so interesting to see how science has progressed.”

In essence, their discovery that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells can help scientists develop treatment for such things as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.

“One question leads to another,” Hoerter said. “But I believe we are on the right track.”

Ferris’ Melanocyte Stem Cell Lab is funded through a three-year $347,000 Academic Enhancement Research Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health, which just showcased Hoerter’s work on its “Stories of Success” website as an example of the importance of providing research experience for undergraduate students.

The NIEHS recently awarded an additional grant to the lab for Alexandria Casillas, a post-baccalaureate NIH fellow, to continue acquiring research experience before she enters graduate school next fall. Casillas began a one-year fellowship in August 2011 that the additional funding extends through June 30.

“This experience will prove invaluable for my success in grad school,” said Casillas, a Dominican University graduate from Antioch, Calif. who hopes to pursue a career in biomedical sciences. “This is giving me confidence in my ability to conduct scientific research.”

Casillas has been studying the role of skin stem cells in development of melanoma by focusing on the effects of the UVA rays in sunlight on zebrafish, considered a model organism because about 90 percent of its genes are similar to those in humans.

Hoerter’s hypothesis is that melanocyte stem cells can be damaged and accumulate UV-induced mutations over time. Later in life, adult melanocytes regenerated from the damaged stem cells are more likely to be susceptible to sunlight or radiation from a tanning bed.

In addition to monitoring the zebrafish and conducting research, Casillas designs her own experiments. Hoerter has been helping her develop the skills to ensure those experiments answer a question.

“I’m not going to tell her what to do – that’s not the way science works,” Hoerter said. “Yes, I’ll give advice, but the idea behind this lab is to promote independent thinking, to be creative. We are all working on the same problem, but trying to solve it in different ways.”

Casillas’ study of pigmentation patterning in zebrafish is showing results, he said.

“The avenue we have taken has been fruitful,” Hoerter said. “Ultimately, we’re trying to discover the origins of melanoma and how it develops. This eventually will lead to the development of a better way to eradicate it and keep it from coming back.”

Casillas serves as a peer mentor to other students working in the lab, including Lindsey Robertson, a Biology major from Brigham Young University who is doing a required undergraduate research internship this year.

“Having Lindsey here is also helping me build a bridge for this university to offer an exchange program for undergraduates interested in doing research,” Hoerter said.

The lab also includes a manager, research assistant and three undergraduate research assistants, and occasionally high school students interested in research.

“I’ve worked very hard during the course of my career to provide research opportunities for undergraduate students, to encourage them to pursue research careers,” said Hoerter, whose work has included the study of stem cells at Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland through a 2008 U.S. Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship.

The three-year NIEHS grant that has funded the lab ends June 30, but Hoerter is in the process of applying for a renewal based on his positive findings thus far.

“Dr. Hoerter’s melanoma research is an exemplar of the contribution Ferris can make both to science and higher education,” said Rick Kurtz, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Education. “Through his work, undergraduate students get hands-on experience in basic research that generally does not happen at larger institutions. These students are better prepared to engage in robust laboratory research upon entering graduate school programs.”

Karen Strasser, the university’s director of Academic Research and Grants, said Hoerter has created a unique learning environment at Ferris that will draw more students to careers in science.

“His students experience what it is like to work in a collaborative research environment, and the individual accountability to a group of peers that comes with it,” Strasser said. “The skills they learn will make them very attractive to faculty accepting students into masters and Ph.D. programs, as well as corporate research labs.”