"Wanna see some cancer?" junior Greg Roloff asked as he focused his microscope. For most, this is a new and unsettling experience, but Roloff knows what he's doing.
A biology major and chemistry minor, Roloff is a burgeoning cancer and stem cell researcher. Last fall, his stem cell work was published in the internationally respected American Journal of Physiology – he was only 20 years old when it went to press.
"When I published this paper all the Ph.D. students who are 25 or 26 said ‘Normally, when we get published we go out for drinks, but . . . sorry,'" he said.
Stem cells are significant to research because they can be genetically encouraged to morph into other types of cells. If irreplaceable cells die – this happens in the brain cells of Alzheimer's patients – stem cells can replace dead tissue with living tissue and potentially replenish organ function. This is what Roloff and his team at the University of Buffalo did to cardiac tissue last summer.
Before the team's research could be tried on humans, it had to be tried on smaller, furrier subjects.
"We were able to give hamsters, these poor little guys who had this terrible heart condition, a stem cell treatment, and we were able to reduce the cardiac injury by about 60 percent," Roloff explained. "Prior work with cardiac regeneration with stem cells was about 25 to 30 percent."
The next step for the group's research is replication in other labs and on other subjects. If all goes well, tests will be applied to humans in clinical trials.
The next step for Roloff, on the other hand, may be Harvard or Columbia University. He applied to both for summer internships to advance his education and scientific credentials. He has already gone through several elimination rounds and will find out next week if he's made the cut.
For now, Roloff is working on cancer cells in Geneseo's labs. Although his true passion is stem cells, you wouldn't know it by the amount of effort he spends working with cancer cells. Roloff spent last weekend in the library.
"All weekend I was combing medical journals and trying to figure out why these results from an experiment we did on Friday weren't as promising as we'd like," he said. "I emailed Dr. [Robert] O'Donnell [chair of the biology department] at probably one o'clock in the morning [Sunday] night saying, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it!'"
Roloff puts in about 10 hours a week for the research, but it only counts for one academic credit. Part of Roloff's passion resides in his investigation of a possible link between cancer and stem cells.
"I think it would be very cool to integrate some of the stem cell technology as a means to helping cancer patients," he said. And it's possible – leukemia is a blood cancer that destroys healthy cells. "We could program [stem] cells to make up what was lost when a leukemia patient's healthy cells went bad."
Roloff is one of the scientists ushering in a new era of medicine. Instead of trying 100 different drugs to kill a cancer, he's using genetics to make the cancer fit the drugs he already has. The same principle goes for stem cells – "Take what you have, and make it work for you," Roloff said. "I like it."