UT students and researchers collaborate to combat cancer

Nahila Bonfiglio

A program in the College of Natural Sciences is working on microscopic sensors that may someday assist in the diagnosis of cancer.

The Accelerated Research Initiative (ARI) program is an 8-week summer research opportunity for students interested in the sciences to gain relevant and valuable experience in their field. The program consists of multiple research projects, one of which focuses on supramolecular sensors — molecules that can detect certain chemicals and signal their presence.

Andrew Hoang, physics sophomore and part of the supramolecular sensor team, is working on an array of peptide-based sensors that can can identify chemicals believed to be linked to some cancers. Hoang describes these sensors as similar to the human tongue, because the taste receptors can pinpoint certain foods.

“Our peptide sensors sort of work like that but are constructed in the lab,” Hoang said. “[We] focus on a certain class of [enzymes] which have been known to be involved in the development of approximately 30 percent of all human cancers.”

Clinical assistant professor Diana Zamora-Olivares has been working on the sensors for years during her doctoral and postdoctoral studies at the UT Anslyn research group and credits students with much of their development. While the sensors help detect the presence of cancer, they may be most helpful during the treatment process, Zamora-Olivares said.

“After a few months, within six or so months, the tumor can become unresponsive to a drug,” Zamora-Olivares said. “That is where the technology could come in handy, because we would be able to recognize [any] changes as soon as the tumor stops responding to the drug.”

If the project is successful, the sensors will be able to identify and track the development of cancer more efficiently by drawing a sample with a needle and placing it in a dish for the sensors to analyze. Jevons Wang, biochemistry senior and advisor to the supramolecular sensor team, said this a non-invasive, cheap and quick alternative to traditional methods.

“We're optimistic that we'll get good research done while providing a valuable learning experience to new student researchers at UT,” Wang said. “I got into this field [because] I was interested in this new and exciting venture that the lab would be taking, especially because of its practicality in helping a real problem that is affecting people's health today.”