By participating in the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, I was able to work this summer in Dr. Erle Robertson’s lab in the department of Otorhinolaryngology in Perelman. This lab studies the interaction between viruses and their hosts, elucidating both the pathways viruses use during transformation of the host's cells as well as the role of viruses in tumor progression. Microbial dysbiosis has recently been linked with cancer as well as with the dysregulation of certain metabolic pathways. Since cancers are also characterized by metabolic dysregulation, the goal of my project was to try to determine whether the microbiome of breast cancers plays a role in the deregulation of certain metabolic pathways. In order to do that, we studied the genetic expression in four triple negative breast cancer patients. The patients were chosen based on their microbiome: two patients had high levels of bacteria and viruses and the other two did not. I extracted RNA from both breast cancer tissues as well as healthy tissues from the four different patients, since one can tell the genes that are expressed from looking at RNA. I then turned that RNA into cDNA and used the cDNA to measure the expression of certain genes involved in fatty acid metabolic pathways through real-time PCR, which amplifies segments of the genes we want so that their expression levels in the tissue can be determined. The expression of the genes in the breast cancer tissue was compared to the expression in the non-cancerous tissue from the same patient.
Besides learning wet lab research techniques, I learned about the problem-solving process one goes through when trying to answer a question in an academic research environment. Research techniques will vary depending on the research, but one always has to be able to look at a question and determine what the next steps in answering it are. Moreover, I learned what academic wet lab research entails and explored an academic avenue I may want to go down.