SPUR 2019: Immune cell function in disease


Macrophages are one of the body's first responders to infection. They eat debris, attack foreign substances, and help keep the body healthy. So then it is surprising that macrophages can play a sinister role in tumors. Instead of attacking cancer cells, macrophages promote metastasis of many cancers. What kind of communication occurs between macrophages and cancer cells for this to occur? To answer these questions, we use a combination of animal models and cell culture techniques to visualize and manipulate macrophage behaviour when in contact with cancer cells. We also visualize cancer cell behaviour during specific steps of metastasis in living animals. With these approaches, we have discovered unexpected modes of cell-cell communication between cancer cells and their environment, and are now determining the molecular mechanisms of this communication.

Student Role

If a student were accepted for this project, they would learn the following skills:

  1. Animal husbandry: We use the vertebrate, zebrafish, as a model for human cancers due to the ease of genetics, and importantly for us, amenability for live cell imaging due to the transparent body plan. The student would learn how to breed animals and manipulate embryos.
  2. Microinjection: The student would learn how to implant tumor cells or pathogens into the zebrafish larvae with microinjection techniques.
  3. Microscopy: Due to the nature of our questions, our approaches require imaging of live animals to visualize cancer cell and macrophage behaviours. The student would learn how to mount animals for live cell imaging and be trained on confocal microscopy for high-resolution imaging.
  4. Analysis: Upon acquiring images, the student will be responsible for analyzing cell behaviours with computational approaches, and learn appropriate software to produce graphs.
  5. Scientific interactions: In addition to the research, the student will be expected to attend our weekly lab meetings where we discuss data and talk about new papers in our field. The student will also interact with a lively and productive group of researchers on a daily basis.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

We anticipate that this experience will prepare the student for the future in the following ways:

  1. Critical thinking: Perhaps the most valuable skill that the student will learn is how to think critically about their own data and the data of others. Understanding how and why experiments are performed, and how to interpret the data is an important skill not just in research, but in life.
  2. Team work: The student will be working with a group of individuals, all coming from different backgrounds (personally and professionally). Working with and being productive with a diverse group of people will be key to their success.
  3. Perseverance: Experiments almost never work the first time. The student will learn from each "failed" experiment, reassess, and learn to try again.

Minna Roh-Johnson
Assistant Professor

School of Medicine
Bioscience Graduate Studies

We will provide a safe and nurturing environment, in which all individuals can learn and feel comfortable. The student will interact with at least 2 other members of the lab in addition to myself on an almost daily basis, and the student and I will also have weekly 30-minute meetings where we sit down, discuss data and interpret results. We will strive to help the student become independent and have ownership over their own project. To meet this goal, the student will not perform random experiments to support someone else's project, but will be given their own suitable project. As they become more comfortable with the biology and the techniques, the student will be given flexibility to explore projects within their topic, with input from me, to further solidify their independence. At the end of the summer, the student will be expected to orally present their project to the group, and receive feedback on the presentation to improve their communication skills.