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‘Whole new world’

Graduate student receives scholarship for childhood cancer research

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

A doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry has received a substantial graduate scholarship from the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI).

The BHCRI’s Cancer Research Training Program will provide PhD student Modeline Longjohn with $35,750 over two years while she completes her doctorate at Memorial.

Real-time monitoring

Originally from Nigeria, Ms. Longjohn came to Memorial to start her program three years ago.

Her doctoral work focuses on real-time monitoring of pediatric B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or B-ALL, disease progression.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer. Ms. Longjohn says there are many types, with some having a high chance of survival.

“I will get to interact, collaborate and build partnerships . . . that will enrich me as a scientist.” — Modeline Longjohn

However, for some types of childhood cancers, only 30-40 per cent of children are cured. Additionally, if B-ALL returns after initial remission, the survival rate is only 30-50 per cent.

“Detecting high-risk types of ALL and relapse involves invasive bone marrow and/or lumbar punctures,” she said. “Instead, we are proposing to use nanoparticles that are released from cancer cells to detect the leukemic cells.”

Non-invasive testing

These nanoparticles, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), circulate between the blood and bone marrow and between the blood and the central nervous system.

Ms. Longjohn believes EVs in the blood could be used to detect cancer cells, no matter where they are in the body.

“Thus, a simple blood draw could potentially be used to monitor treatment success, relapse and perhaps even used for diagnosis,” she said. “However, the specific molecules that are carried by B-ALL EVs are not known.

“We plan to identify B-ALL EV-specific genetic signatures using small molecules called microRNA,” she continued. “We will determine if this B-ALL-specific signature can be detected in the blood when cancer is present, but not when patients have been cured.”

If Ms. Longjohn is successful, a blood draw that could be performed anywhere in the province could be used to track the level of B-ALL.

That would mean eliminating the need for painful and invasive procedures and allowing children to stay in their home communities while their blood samples are transported to the Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. John’s for analysis.

Interact and collaborate

The funding will allow Ms. Longjohn and doctoral students like her the opportunity to go through different training processes and attend workshops and conferences.

“For me it’s a huge opportunity to learn from different people and opportunities, beyond reading papers and carrying out experiments. I will get to interact, collaborate and build partnerships with them, among other ways of learning that will enrich me as a scientist.”

Making a better scientist

To date, the BHCRI has awarded more than $580,000 in stipend support to 17 Memorial University graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, including Ms. Longjohn’s supervisor, Dr. Sherri Christian.

The awards are matched by Memorial University. Ms. Longjohn’s studentship is provided by funds from GIVETOLIVE and Memorial’s School of Graduate Studies.

“I’m very grateful to be one of the trainees under this program,” she said. “It means a lot to me as someone who loves to learn. It’s a pointer to the fact that you can be anything you want to be, as long as you endeavour to learn from people who are more qualified and can help you advance.

“This is a huge opportunity for me, not just to learn from Dr. Christian, who I think is wonderful, but I will be opened up to a whole new world that I believe will make me a better scientist.”

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