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By Lynn Ascrizzi
Laboratory research aimed at discovering a cancer therapy or cure carries with it a certain amount of scientific glamour. But as Traci J. Speed '03 knows, that noble pursuit requires innumerable, silent hours of repetitive, exacting and seemingly mundane tasks.
While working on a cancer research project under the direction of her Colby adviser, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dasan M. Thamattoor, Speed put in nearly 500 painstaking hours in a cramped organic chemistry lab located on the second floor of the Keyes ScienceBuilding. Surrounded by computers, piles of notebooks and brown jars filled with chemicals, she spent much her lab time stooped over a piece of equipment called "the hood," an overhead air-filtration and suction device that draws out noxious fumes of chemicals being experimented with on a bench below.
It's just like cooking and adding different sauces," she said, demonstrating how she might tinker with chemical reactions using a round-bottom glass flask clamped over a hot plate. "My main purpose was to synthesize natural compounds isolated from ?coral compounds known to attack human tumor cells. I lucked out. In the long run, this [synthesis] could be used to develop a new kind of chemotherapy."
Speed actually synthesized two very similar compounds that occur naturally in the coral. Further testing by cancer research labs has yet to be done to demonstrate how effective the synthetic compounds will be against human cancer cells, she said. So far her successful syntheses have elicited interest from the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University. "He [Thamattoor] knew I was interested in doing cancer research and gave me this to work on," she said."It has all the potential associated with any other natural product that has activity against cancer cells," Thamattoor said of the syntheses. "Whether the potential will be fully realized, only time will tell."
It was a tough project for an undergraduate, he said. "Traci seems to have hands of gold. She is just an absolutely phenomenal worker in the lab. She is so conscientious. It takes a skillful student to make it work."
Speed began her research by analyzing the specific chemical structure of a stony coral called montipora, found off the coast of Korea. She did not work directly with the physical coral or its natural cytotoxins but from the molecular structure identified in a research paper published in The Journal of Natural Products in 1999.
A cytotoxin is a poisonous substance secreted by certain organisms. In the journal paper, researchers reported that lab tests showed that organic compounds in the coral produced varying kinds of activities against a number of different human cancer cells, such as lung, ovarian, skin, central nervous system and colon cancers.
Speed labored to break down the coral's organic compound into segments,using a research method called retrosynthesis. "It's like thinking backwards," she said. "You want to break it down into a chemical that you can easily obtain from a chemical company."
Compounds are synthesized in this way because it would take tons of coral to extract a small amount of isolated compound. A synthetic makes efficient use of time and resources.One of the things Traci has done is to make available several hundred milligrams of this stuff, so researchers can use it for further testing," Thamattoor said. The results of the Colby research were published in January 2002 in
Tetrahedron Letters, a prestigious, international journal for reporting preliminary communications in organic chemistry. For her academic achievements and research experience, Speed was awarded a two-year grant for $1,500 per year from the American Association of Cancer Research, based in Philadelphia. The grants are available to third-year undergraduates involved in cancer research, she said. The AACR only gives this award to 10 students nationwide, Thamattoor said.
Part of the grant allowed Speed to attend the AACR's national meeting in San Francisco in April. "It was a great opportunity to meet mentors in the cancer field and other cancer researchers," she said.
Speed grew up in Rocky Hill, Conn., south of Hartford. At Colby, she is majoring in chemistry, with a concentration in cellular and molecular biology/biochemistry. She became involved with organic chemistry in her sophomore year.
Since then, she has been involved in another, ongoing cancer research project, in collaboration with Thamattoor and biochemist Julie Millard, associate professor of chemistry. That project involves work with a compound extracted from a mushroom that grows in Japan called Hydnum repandum, which also has shown activity against cancer cells. "I'm taking the structure, based on literature and trying to synthesize it in the lab," Speed said, with the modesty that comes from knowing the scope of cancer research. "We've had some success."
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