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CSB biochemistry major’s research could help in fight against cancer

Some people spend their summers at the beach, or hanging out by the pool.

College of Saint Benedict junior Jocie Larson has spent hers in the lab, conducting research that may one day assist in preventing some forms of blood cancer.

“I’m currently studying for the MCAT (medical college admission test) and I’m hoping to go to medical school directly after I complete my undergraduate work,” said Larson, a biochemistry major who is minoring in theology.

“I’m really interested in pediatric oncology and that’s what sparked my interest in blood cancer. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the No. 1 blood cancer in kids. So I thought it would be incredible if I could take this big area and incorporate it into a smaller-scale project.”

Thanks to a research position made possible through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at the CSB and Saint John’s University, she has been able to do just that.

She’s been studying the p300 protein’s HAT (histone acetyltransferase) domain – specifically looking for certain drugs that might be able to bind to it and prevent its role in the expression of cancer.

“That domain binds to a molecule that then is able to bind to DNA,” she said. “And that starts the process of transcription. Transcription allows for gene expression. We have these genes called proto-oncogenes, and when they mutate, they become oncogenes. When oncogenes are activated, that’s when cancer expression starts.

“I’m trying to inhibit the function of the p300. Because that’s kind of the fire that starts everything when it comes to the expression of cancer.”

It’s a project that has additional meaning to Larson, whose grandfather is battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is using ibrutinib, one of the drugs she has been studying this summer.

Jocie and her family

Jocie and her family, courtesy of Jocie Larson

“That was really cool for me to break down what it is and how it’s structured,” she said. “Then to be able to explore how it works.”

Larson is one of 60 CSB and SJU students taking part in undergraduate research programs this summer in departments ranging from chemistry to theology and nutrition to psychology.

“A research experience allows students to take initiative by generating ideas that expand their existing knowledge and skills,” said Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at CSB and SJU. “It helps them become good problem solvers and get comfortable facing challenges that they might encounter during a project. They’re becoming innovative thinkers when they propose a new research question that will contribute new knowledge to their field.

“They’re learning how to develop meaningful, strong relationships with faculty mentors who are experts in their fields. And research provides the opportunity for our students to think holistically about how (it) connects to other experiences in their lives – like their coursework – and ultimately helps them deepen their understanding in their own field of study while also broadening their own perspectives … which is what we really love to see at liberal arts and sciences institutions like CSB and SJU.”

For Larson, it has also meant developing a base for ongoing research.

“This is going to become my distinguished thesis, so I’ll continue the project into my senior year,” she said. “This summer, my goal was just to see if there was even the potential for repurposed drugs that could be used with the p300 protein and there is.

“When I started, I thought it would be great to get one drug that would bind to p300 and we’ve found five. So I couldn’t be happier with the results.”

Larson credits Lisa Gentile, an associate professor of chemistry at CSB and SJU, with helping shape the scope of her project, then helping to guide her through it.

“They always have the option for you to work on some of the projects that the professor has previously worked on,” Larson said. “But when I came to Dr. Gentile and told her what I was interested in, she made it clear that I could make my own project – something I was interested in and passionate about.

“At first I wondered if I was in over my head. It was kind of scary. But she held my hand and walked me along. That’s something I’m not sure you’d get at a bigger university. To have a professor who cares that much about your interests is a pretty special thing.”

Gentile said Larson has made exciting progress this summer.

“I first met Jocie in the spring when she was a student in my Chem 251 class,” Gentile said. “Based on her interest in learning, her ability to work well in a group and the time and effort she put in, I encouraged her to apply for one of the summer research positions in the chemistry department.

“Jocie has been exciting to work with,” she continued. “She came into the lab with an idea of what she wanted to study based on her personal experiences and because of this was really invested in the outcomes. She spent time in the literature educating herself on what was known, and then she learned the computational and in vitro techniques she needed to in order to answer her research question. One of the great things about full-time summer research is that Jocie had the time to put in to make progress on her project, finding ways around obstacles she encountered. Her persistence and hard work paid off with excellent preliminary results. I’m looking forward to seeing her continued progress on this project, and as a biochemistry major whose goal is to enter medical school.”

Larson, a graduate of Litchfield (Minnesota) High School, is a first-generation student, meaning she and her siblings are the first members of their family to attend a four-year college. Her father Brad is a construction superintendent and her mother Nicole works in hospice care. Her older sister Brianna graduated from CSB this past spring and her younger brother Bradley is about to begin his senior year of high school.

Jocie swimming

She is also a member of the swim team at Saint Ben’s and works in the retirement and health care center at Saint John’s Abbey. In addition, she coaches Special Olympic softball.

After taking the MCAT in January, she plans to spend the spring semester studying abroad in Spain.

“Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s are the kind of places where you can do it all,” she said. “When you come in here, they tell you that with Division III athletics and a liberal arts education, you’re going to get a mix of everything. And they really mean it. My class load this next semester is a great example of that. I’m taking a biochemistry class, an animal physiology class, a feminist theology class and a fashion class for one of my art credits.

“I love the diverse range of classes and having the opportunity to continue participating in a sport I’m passionate about. I love that I’m able to participate in research like this and make connections with my professors and peers that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience I’ve had here for anything.”

Watch Jocie explain her undergraduate research project.