Writer: Dana Beasley
Since their arrival to New Mexico State University in 2009, Kevin and Jessica P. Houston’s investigations into cancer research have developed into a multidisciplinary partnership, coupling cancer biology with engineering for this husband and wife team.
“We are very passionate about cancer research,” said Kevin Houston, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Cancer research is the focus of not only our collaboration, but most of our work at NMSU.”
Kevin and Jessica, an associate professor of chemical engineering, are working to design minimally invasive diagnostic measurement capabilities that can be used in clinics to monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatments.
“This collaboration was a natural fit due to the diversity of our research efforts,” Kevin Houston said. “Jessica builds instruments that have unique cell measurement capabilities, and my cancer cell studies benefit from the instrumentation developed in Jessica’s laboratory. We believe this research is high-risk, yet high payoff, in that it leads to the development of valuable diagnostic and therapeutic tools for cancer.”
While a number of NMSU academics are involved in cancer-related research, the Houston’s project is one of a handful supported by the Cowboys for Cancer Research (C4CR) Endowed Fund at the NMSU Foundation. C4CR is a local not-for-profit corporation raising funds in support of ongoing cancer research at NMSU and the University of New Mexico.
For the second year in a row, Cowboys for Cancer Research will raise a portion of their research funding through “NMSU Aggies are Tough Enough to Wear Pink,” a volunteer group dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness and funds on behalf of C4CR. At the Pink Aggie football game on Saturday, Oct. 24, the group will make their check presentation to C4CR.
“Because Cowboys for Cancer Research funds are predominantly from New Mexico residents, it makes our work more intimate and provides a greater sense of responsibility to ensure we are doing the best we can to help our state and others,” said Ryan Ashley, assistant professor of animal and range sciences.
Ashley’s project investigates the role of progestins in an important signaling pathway activated in breast cancer that may lead to new targets for cancer therapy.
“If it were not for the Cowboys for Cancer Research support,” he said, “our lab would not have been able to perform our studies, and thus would not have discovered the differences that natural versus synthetic progestins play in breast cells.”
Brad Shuster, associate professor of biology, explained “the climate for research funding is difficult and, as a result, funding decisions by federal agencies tend to err on the cautious side.”
“Cowboys for Cancer Research funding has provided us critical seed funding to pursue an idea that would not otherwise have been funded,” he said. “We are now in a much better position to compete for federal funding as a result.”
Shuster is working to develop a new combinatorial therapeutic approach for targeting actively dividing tumor cells without the side effects associated with existing drugs.
Other NMSU researchers benefiting from C4CR are Shelley Lusetti, associate professor of biology, and Jeff Arterburn, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Lusetti is working to increase understanding of a mechanism for DNA repair that is important for chemotherapy and cancer prevention. Arterburn has been working to unlock the potential of a unique kind of estrogen receptor (GPR 30) to diagnose and treat breast cancer.
Collaborations among researchers at NMSU are leading the way to new discoveries thanks to funding from organizations such as Cowboys for Cancer Research.
“The origin of these funds from our local community provides a direct connection to the research, and places personal context to the impacts of cancer on our families and friends that is extremely motivational for the researchers,” Arterburn said.
While the implications of these cancer research efforts extend beyond the NMSU campus, the impact of this deadly disease continues to hit close to home.
“I lost my mom to cancer,” Ashley said. “Performing research that impacts cancer biology provides a personal conviction to work wholeheartedly at all we do in the lab.”
For more information on Cowboys for Cancer Research, visit c4cr.com. For more information on NMSU Aggies are Tough Enough to Wear Pink, visit pinkaggie.com.