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It’s the word we hope the doctor never utters. It’s the monster inside us, unwelcome and unseen—cancer. In the labs of Southern Research in Birmingham, research scientist Rebecca Boohaker is working to unmask the monster in order to discover better drugs and therapies to fight it.
A Journey’s Beginning
Southern Research is a nonprofit research organization for science and engineering headquartered right here in the Magic City. Partnering with such entities as NASA, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy, it’s a prime post for a research scientist. However, Boohaker’s Birmingham roots go deeper.
Boohaker (left) and her early mentor at UAB, John F. Kearney, PhD (right). Photos via Southern Research and UAB
“I started out in a lab at UAB working for a fantastic immunologist when I was in high school, believe it or not,” said Boohaker, a student at John Carroll Catholic High School at the time.
The UAB professor was Dr. John F. Kearney, of the microbiology department. Boohaker’s experience in his lab led her to pursue a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry at UAB, and those years solidified her decision to pursue research instead of medical school.
Unlocking The Power Of Killer Proteins
One problem with cancer is that cells don’t die when they should. The biological mechanisms that control the cell life cycle fail.
Boohaker was pursuing her doctorate at the University of Central Florida in Orlando when she got an assignment related to this very problem that would prove a turning point in her career.
“It’s a good example of a basic science project turning into drug discovery. My task was to understand how a protein, known as Bax, which is one of the predominant cell death proteins, went from normal existence in the cell to a killer protein when the death signal was received.
“It became apparent that there was something about that protein, specifically a very small part of it—a peptide, that could disrupt another protein in a cancerous cell and cause cell death.”Rebecca Boohaker, research scientist, Southern Research
Once the research team discovered that, the trick was figuring out how to deliver the altered therapeutic peptide, normally produced inside human cells, from outside the body. It had to stay in the bloodstream long enough to reach the tumor, then enter the cells. For that, they partnered with nanochemists.
Today, the technology has been licensed by a Delaware-based startup and is undergoing pre-clinical evaluation. For Boohaker, the experience helped her choose her career focus: drug discovery.
“I saw that basic research could turn into something that could help people. I could take what I already knew and use it to develop a drug or treat a disease. There’s an applied component to it—basically, a problem to solve.”Rebecca Boohaker, research scientist, Southern Research
At Home At Southern Research
Ultimately, the thriving science community in Birmingham that sparked Boohaker’s interest in research in high school brought her back home when she finished her doctoral studies. In 2013, she joined Southern Research to complete her postdoctoral fellowship. In 2016, she became a research scientist in the oncology department within the drug discovery division.
“This is the most collaborative, interdisciplinary environment that I have ever been in. You can be a biologist but also work with structural chemists and medicinal chemists and people who deal with robotics. I sit on committees where we look at technologies people are working on across the institute.”Rebecca Boohaker, research scientist, Southern Research
A Multi-Pronged Approach
Since joining Southern Research, Boohaker has expanded her scope to study cell cycle regulation, DNA damage response and tumor-induced immune evasion.
For instance, one hallmark of cancer is uncontrolled growth, meaning rapidly dividing cells. That leads to a tumor mass or, in the case of blood cancers, way too many of one cell type.
“There’s a whole panel of genes and whole other panel of proteins that regulate the genes that control cell growth,” Boohaker said.
First, her team at Southern Research tries to understand how regulatory mechanisms normally function in a cell, versus how they work when a cell turns cancerous. Next, they look at differences at the genetic level and, even more so, at the protein level, where the genes are controlled. Finally, they try to design drugs that target the changes that shouldn’t be there.
Her team also looks at the problem from the other end: the immune system.
“Your immune system will recognize cells that are dysfunctional and destroy them one way or the other. In a lot of cancers, the cancer will evolve to mask itself from the immune system.
“We’re looking at how we can keep the immune system aware that the cancer is still there. Our main project is to target the key protein on immune cells that is often exploited by the cancer to blind the immune system.”Rebecca Boohaker, research scientist, Southern Research
While Boohaker and her colleagues keep working on new cancer drugs and therapies, there’s yet another aspect of Southern Research that benefits Birmingham’s research community. The nonprofit promotes STEM education in our schools and, just this summer, opened a new STEM Education Outreach Lab, which can accommodate up to 50 students. And with that, hopefully many more Birmingham students will follow in Boohaker’s footsteps.