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From L to R: Jude Owiredu, Changmeng Cai, Provost Emily McDermott, Chancellor Katherine S. Newman, Kellee Siegfried, and Anuoluwapo Ajao at the Chancellor's Faculty Research Celebration
November 9, 2018

Student and faculty researchers at UMass Boston recognized for work in cancer research


  • Boston
Understanding prostate, testicular cancer were focuses of annual faculty research celebration

Faculty-student projects supported by the UMass Boston–Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center U54 Partnership were the focus of this month’s Chancellor’s Faculty Research Celebration, sponsored by the Friends of the Library.

A core component of the partnership is providing training opportunities for minority students. Since the partnership began in 2002, more than 250 UMass Boston undergraduate students have been trained.

One of those students is 2018 graduate Jude Owiredu, who shared that after working with Assistant Professor of Biology and Cancer Biology Changmeng Cai in UMass Boston’s Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy, he decided he wants to become a physician-scientist in his home country of Ghana, working with patients and data equally. Owiredu, who is currently applying to MD-PhD programs, worked alongside Cai for two years studying prostate cancer, and had the opportunity to present at conferences and publish.

“Currently, I conduct translational research [with …] the hopes of providing treatment which can effectively target this disease,” Owiredu said.

Describing the reasoning behind and importance of a U54 pilot project that’s currently under way, Cai said African Caribbean men have the highest possible cancer mortality rate in the world, but before this partnership with Dana-Farber and MGH, there haven’t been any studies on prostate cancer mutations among this population.

“The first step was [for an MGH lab] to collect about 100 prostate cancer samples from Jamaican men, in Jamaica,” Cai said. “[Now that] the samples are collected, [they] will ship to Dana-Farber for DNA extraction, and then the DNA will ship to the CPCT Genomics Core, which is led by Jill Macoska, and we’re going to perform a so-called targeted sequencing to examine the mutations. The results of that data will be transferred to the Broad Institute.” The Broad Institute is a biomedical and genomic research center in Cambridge.

Senior biology major Anuoluwapo Ajao wants to do more research after studying infertile zebrafish in Assistant Professor of Biology Kellee Siegfried’s lab. Why zebrafish? Siegfried says 70 percent of the fish genome has a human counterpart. The U54 partnership gives UMass Boston researchers access to the human germ (sperm) cell data that Dana-Farber has collected.

“Our lab is using zebrafish as an animal model to understand genetic regulation of testicular cancer and infertility. From these studies, we will gain knowledge that may lead to development of targeted therapies or diagnostic tools,” Ajao said.

Ajao says she is extremely grateful to Siegfried, who she met at a U54 symposium last year.

“She was the first person to give me an opportunity to do research even though I had no experience other than my classes. Without her, I don’t think I would know as much as I do, and just like Jude, the opportunity that I’ve had in the lab for the last 10 months has definitely influenced my decisions for the future. Initially I was thinking strongly toward an MD degree but now I really want to do more research and definitely incorporate more research into the kind of medicine [I go into],” Ajao said.

“That was inspiring and I know in a few years we’ll invite these two students back to UMass Boston,” Interim Chancellor Katherine S. Newman said in her closing remarks. “It’s an honor to know that you got your start here and I’m grateful to your faculty members for helping you along that pathway.”

Research funding at UMass Boston has increased 170 percent from $26 million in 2006 to about $70 million in 2018.