Brain Tumor Research at NMU

The seventh annual Hope Starts Here Challenge on Saturday, May 12, will benefit the Upper Michigan Brain Tumor Center in the West Science Building, a collaboration between Marquette General Hospital and NMU. Scientific research conducted by Northern professors and students is an important component of the UMBTC. Robert Belton (Biology) did not expect to be part of the effort when he joined the NMU faculty in August 2010. He had previously studied the role that Basigin proteins, located on the surface of cancer cells, played in the development of cervical cancer. He intended to continue down that path at Northern, but his focus shifted when his research also proved highly relevant to brain tumor development.

“I began working on glioblastoma brain tumors with Rob Winn (Biology) and Dr. Rich Rovin of the UMBTC,” Belton said. “I’m looking at the Basigin family of proteins and how they impact tumor survival and metastasis, or spreading.”

Most cells in the brain are glial cells. They do not transmit electrical signals like neurons, but support that function by surrounding and insulating the neurons. Basigin protein is not present on normal glial cells, but is expressed when those cells become cancerous. At his previous institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Belton explored how Basigin becomes internalized after initially forming on the cell’s surface. The information might lead to novel ways to treat brain tumors as well.

“Working with Rich Rovin gives us access to primary tumor samples that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “And collaborating with Rob Winn connects me with a large pool of students to assist in the research. There’s a lot of momentum here and I’m excited to be involved in it. Dozens of labs in the country are working on the same kinds of things. All are making important contributions. The average lifespan with glioblastoma is 15 months. None of us is as close to a cure as we’d like to be, but anything we learn that helps to improve the quality of life is worth it.”

Four undergraduate students are assisting Belton with his research: freshman fellow Carol Kessel; juniors Matt Cowling, a McNair Scholar, and Aaron Bardwell; and graduating senior Alex Ling.

“They’re learning how to work with DNA, RNA and proteins as molecules—things you can’t see—as well as mammalian cells grown in culture. The students will be well-trained and that’s the payoff; they’ll be able to move on to better things after they graduate.”

Belton’s team is constructing plasmids, or circular pieces of DNA that have genes for the Basigin protein, and artificially inserting them in cancer cells. They will use the university’s new confocal, laser-scanning microscope to see how different proteins in a cell interact with each other, focusing on the Basigin family.

“My professional goal was to find a teaching position that would allow me to do research with undergraduate and graduate students,” he said. “I applied for a number of jobs and fell in love with NMU. There were several opportunities I turned down in the hope that NMU would extend an offer. I’m fortunate to be here and to be involved with the UMBTC. My focus isn’t restricted to Basigin proteins. I’m going to look at several molecules, but all are related to brain tumor research.”

The Hope Starts Here Challenge features competitive half-marathon, 5K and 10K runs, along with individual and team duathalons. There are also non-competitive options such as a short bike ride or leisurely walk on the lakeshore bike path. Dogs are welcome. For more information, visit HSH Challenge.



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Updated: May 4, 2012

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