NASA-funded research scholarship awarded to Brittney Atkins ‘21 for work on pancreatic cancer

MANSFIELD – Brittney Atkins, a Cell and Molecular Biology senior from Hamburg, Pa., was the recipient of a $4,000 research scholarship from the NASA Pennsylvania State Grant Consortium.

The funding allows Atkins to continue advancing research on pancreatic cancer. Atkins’ proposal seeks to evaluate tumor cell resistance to a new potential anti-cancer therapeutic, icariin.

“Typical cancer therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are not successful in treating pancreatic cancer, so research using herbal medications to treat this disease is becoming extremely important,” said Atkins. “Specifically, it is believed that icariin causes tumor cell death via a molecular signaling pathway involving the gene, p53. However, upwards of 50% of solid tumors harbor at least one mutated copy of that gene, which could potentially render the tumor resistant to this therapy.”

Atkins hypothesizes that repeated exposure to icariin could select for tumor cells that have picked up a second mutated copy of p53, a process referred to as loss of heterozygosity. Tumor cells bearing only mutated p53 genes are believed to be more aggressive and are associated with poor prognosis.

Atkins, a first-generation college student, chose Mansfield University because of the research opportunities.

“I knew that I would have great research opportunities due to very close interactions with the professors and other research students on campus,” Atkins explained. “These interactions have allowed me to develop my own research project.”

The project is an extension of David DeGaramo’s ‘19 research, which found that some pancreatic cancer cells developed resistance to icariin treatment after 48 hours of exposure. Atkins’ research project will continue under the advisement of Dr. Kristen Long, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Mansfield University. Dr. Long, who started her career in cancer research at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, teaches students fundamental cell culture techniques that they can apply to research projects using murine pancreatic cancer cell lines.

Atkins is the fourth student under Dr. Long’s advisement to earn a NASA Scholarship which includes Adrianna Vaskas ‘19, Catherine Troutman ’20, and Caitlin Beauduy ’21.

“I am truly grateful to have been selected to receive this NASA Pennsylvania Space Consortium Undergraduate Scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year” Atkins continued. “This scholarship will allow me to take my research to new heights during my last year at MU. I hope that my research findings during this upcoming academic year will help to increase understanding of how therapies work to treat pancreatic cancer.”

NASA Pennsylvania State Grant Consortium Scholarships are awarded to rising juniors and seniors attending an accredited Pennsylvania college or university and are enrolled in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics program. Scholarship recipients agree to participate in multiple education outreach and mentoring activities throughout the award cycle.

For more information on the Biology program at Mansfield University or to learn more about this and other active research projects in Dr. Long’s laboratory, please visit