Team fights breast cancer

by Jason Casell | 11/16/93 6:00am

The search for a treatment for breast cancer has led a Dartmouth senior and a professor from the Virgin Islands to Hanover to study marine organisms that preliminary research shows kill cancer cells.

Michelle Bianco '94, a chemistry major, and Chemistry Professor Gordon Gribble are working with samples of a small, red sponge that attacks the cells.

Gribble spent his sabbatical last year researching Micronesian soft coral at the University of Hawaii. After completing work there, he traveled to St. Thomas last April, where he collected 12 samples of marine organisms.

"We hope to extract enough material to identify the chemical the sponge uses to protect itself," Gribble said. "This is the anti-cancer chemical."

The rare sponge grows in thin layers 20 to 50 feet beneath the ocean surface, encrusting rocks and coral reefs.

Gribble said collecting the organism is like scraping paint. The sponge had to be chipped away from the reef in order to retrieve the samples.

"It was highly difficult and I was only able to bring back half a gram," Gribble said. The small sample was not enough to continue the research.

Bianco traveled to St. Thomas in October to collect more of the sponge samples. She collected 18 grams over a three-day period, scuba diving for a total of 12 hours.

Bianco spent her own money on the trip, which cost about $1,000. She is currently looking for grants or other funding to cover her expenses.

"I have found some financial support, but I still have a long way to go," Bianco said.

"The research is just too important to stop at this point," Bianco said in a news release. "How many times does an undergraduate student get an opportunity to be involved in something like this?"

Bianco added that if the organism proves to be selective in killing only cancer cells, the next step is to isolate and identify the anti-cancer chemical in the sponge and synthesize it to make larger quantities for future testing.

Gribble and Bianco are planning more scuba diving expeditions closer to home.

"We plan to search the Massachusetts coastline for more anti-cancer organisms," Gribble said.

The field of organic synthesis, or the isolation of natural products, is a new area for Gribble.

Citing current advances in the field, Gribble referred to taxol, an anti-cancer chemical found in the ewe tree in the northwestern United States. The drug was recently approved by the FDA for treating ovarian cancer in women.

"All plants and trees have natural pesticides that may be useful as potential cancer-fighting drugs," Gribble said.

Bianco's research is sponsored by the Dartmouth Presidential Scholars Program. The program enables exceptional students to undertake two-year projects during their junior and senior years.

Bianco is writing a senior thesis on marine natural products and their biomedical applications.

She plans to attend graduate school and study marine oceanography, continuing her current research.

"I love the field of isolation extraction," said Bianco. "It's exciting to be part of such a growing area of research."