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Mansfield University professor and students conduct research in the battle against pancreatic cancer

​Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. and has the lowest five-year survival rate of any major cancer. A Mansfield University Biology Professor and three of her students during the fall semester, and six total in a year and a half, are at the forefront of research, in collaboration with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which they hope will one day lead to an effective treatment and eventually a cure of the disease.

Assistant Professor Kristen Long and Biology majors Sarah Cale, Arthur Collier, and Adrianna Vaskas focused their research on understanding the biology of the fibrotic tumor stroma and proliferation signals in pancreatic cancer, a rapidly progressing, incurable disease that has demonstrated unusual resistance to standard therapies including chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation.

“The current understanding is that the dense tumor stroma fosters tumor cell growth and survival by creating an immunosuppressive microenvironment, and it protects tumor cells by acting as a barrier to therapeutic drug delivery,” Long said. “Understanding the relationship between the fibrotic tumor stroma, tumor cell growth, and the inhibition of drug delivery is essential for the development of novel treatment therapies.”

“Specifically, we’re seeking to understand what controls tumor fibrosis deposition and accumulation, the relationship between fibrosis and tumor phenotype and proliferation, and the importance of fibrosis in resistance to therapies,” Long added. “We are working to address these questions though the use of novel, murine pancreas tumor cell lines, previously derived in the laboratory of Dr. Gregory Beatty at the University of Pennsylvania,” she said.  

“It’s been incredible to work on cancer research that could impact so many others,” Cale, a native of Hughesville, PA, said. “To be able to take these genes and modify them, or splice the genomes to stop the metastasis of cancer, it is just incredible to be a part of that.”

Long has been able to offer this rare opportunity to her Mansfield students through her connection to the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed a post-doctoral fellowship and was involved in similar research after earning her PhD from Drexel University.

“I first came to Mansfield with dreams of at least getting an MD in the future but as I’ve progressed through this, met Dr. Long and took courses with her, I realized the potential I had was a lot greater than I thought I did have,” Collier said of becoming involved in this project.

The senior from Duncannon, PA has just learned that he will be published in an article co-authored by Drs. Long and Beatty in an upcoming issue of the journal Molecular Immunology. 

“This has helped me grow as a student and it has also helped to guide me in a direction I want to go in terms of my postgraduate education and what sorts of fields I want to get into as I continue my education,” he said. “I plan on doing an MD/PhD program, getting more into the research aspect of medicine, specifically cancer research or immunology. Those are the fields I’m more interested in since working with Dr. Long.”

Vaskas, a junior from Wyalusing, PA, echoed Collier’s feelings.

“Dr. Long’s passion for cancer research and immunology really jump started my passion for it,” she said. “I’m looking into an MD/PhD program after graduation, so that I can do medical based research. I didn’t see that as a possibility when I came to Mansfield, but Dr. Long definitely opened those doors.” 

The next step for Cale, who graduated on December 16, is graduate school to become a physician’s assistant.

“I never would have imagined that I’ve get to do this kind of research,” she said. “To be able to say that I’m a published researcher together with Dr. Long is helping me with my application to physician’s assistant school.” 

For Long, working with her students and seeing them develop the passion that has driven her professional life and carry that on as they leave MU has been a tremendous her reward.

“The highlight of my day is sharing my excitement for the biomedical sciences with students in the laboratory setting,” Long said. “It’s one thing to discuss ideas and concepts in class, but it’s another to help students develop their own hypotheses based on their observations and determine appropriate methods to address each question. From working in the laboratory, the growth and maturity I have seen in students, as individuals and scientists, has been remarkable.” 

Long’s drive to continue her efforts and involve more students in research will hopefully one day help conquer pancreatic cancer.

“At the end of the day, the ability to foster student growth and share in their excitement of biomedical science is what drives me and is the most fulfilling aspect of my job,” she said. “I am more than grateful that Mansfield provides this unique opportunity.”

To learn more about studying Biology at Mansfield, go to https://www.mansfield.edu/biology/.