War on Cancer: Tumors as Ecological Systems

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Creative Commons

Cancerous cells. (Creative Commons)

The War on Cancer series has so far covered: How Can We Win?, Targeted Therapy, and Tumor Relapse.

In this fourth part of the War on Cancer, I will discuss a phenomenon that has only recently been pushed to the forefront of cancer biology, and it both complicates and opens new doors to treatment strategies. That concept is “tumor heterogeneity”—a tumor that is comprised of multiple types of transformed cells.

The traditional view of tumor formation is simple: DNA within a single cell is damaged, causing it to escape biological constraints and proliferate unchecked. Many tumors do behave like this. However, it has recently come to light that tumors can also be much more complicated. They can be populated by not just a single cell population, but a multitude of cell populations, causing some tumors to behave more like complex ecological systems rather than simple out of control cell divisions.  In fact, some very basic ecology concepts you’ve learned in high school biology may be surprisingly similar to how researchers are beginning to view tumors today.

Should Graduate Students Meditate?


By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
― Aristotle


Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

Meditation is an ancient practice dating back at least three millennia. It’s a fundamental component of many Eastern religious traditions and belief systems including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, to name just a few.

The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices meant to clear the mind and build compassion and kindness. It may also ease some health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and stress. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, notes that:

“Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”

Due to its purported benefits, recent decades have seen increased interest and additional funding for research on meditation and mindfulness. Moreover, mindfulness has reached an almost fad-like status in the Western world due to its potential positive effects on health.

In December, Penn State Hershey Medical Center offered a free seven-week class to learn meditation. Similarly, the Penn State Hershey University Fitness Center recently held their first ever meditation sessions. But for most of us, especially those of us in the sciences, the question still lingers- is there data supporting the benefits of meditation?

NFL Players Sue over Painkillers—Because They’re Addicted


Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga (Flickr)

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

America loves football. Brutal, high-flying, smash-mouth football.

The players seem like gladiators from another era. Chiseled out of stone, they feel no pain as they run, jump, and catch with a grace that appears super-human.

The reality is, however, that they do feel pain—and often are playing injured. As news of the most recent lawsuit against the National Football League unfolds,  the realities of America’s favorite sport are slowly being revealed–retired players are claiming that the NFL got them addicted to painkillers.

There are several legal factors to consider in such a claim: did the NFL act recklessly, negligently, or maliciously? Did they create a culture that encouraged drug abuse? Were players informed of side effects and drug interactions?

Most of the drugs mentioned in this case (Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin) are prescription opioids, which have a long history of abuse and addiction. These drugs act on opioid receptors of the central nervous system relieving pain and causing feelings of euphoria.

While the legalities of this particular claim will likely be argued for a long time, the question remains: why are prescription opioids used so often for pain relief, and why are they so addictive?

A Prosthesis to Fix Broken Memories


By: Daniel Hass, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

ibm_human_brainThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been a major funding source for the development of unique and innovative technologies under its motto of “driving technological surprise.”  Some of DARPA’s current projects include designing bullets that can adjust their course in-flight, novel techniques to investigate brain function (see my previous post on CLARITY), and brain-controlled prosthetic limbs.

As if the line between reality and science fiction was not blurred enough, aid is now being given to researchers for the development of a prosthetic device that will improve the recall and formation of long-term memories.

Did Harry Potter Have Psychosocial Short Stature?

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…[he] had a thin face, knobbly knees…and wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.”

And so we are introduced to The Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One—the famous Harry Potter. His seven books have been translated into 73 different languages and sold over 450 million copies worldwide.

But readers wouldn’t guess, after author J.K. Rowling’s introduction of Harry in Chapter 2, that the orphaned boy would be the one to defeat the powerful and devastating Dark Lord Voldemort. Snubbed by his only remaining family, bullied by his cousin and classmates, and residing in the cupboard under the stairs, Harry is short, skinny, and totally non-threatening.

And it’s clear to us why. His Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley Dursley—to whom he was passed as an infant after the death of his parents— ensure that he’s properly malnourished at all times. After spending a day cleaning the Dursleys’ entire house and doing yardwork in the blazing July heat (on his 12th birthday, no less), Aunt Petunia prepares for Harry “two slices of bread and a lump of cheese” before sending him off to hide during their dinner party with the Masons. It’s no wonder he’s so small for his age.

But perhaps something other than the physical abuse held back his growth, too. Beyond the malnourishment, it’s possible that Harry Potter suffered from what is known as psychosocial short stature.

Congratulations to Winners of the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award!

Blog Award

10553501_493503330779647_3927423967298963676_nThe judges’ scores have been tabulated, and we’re thrilled to announce the winners of our inaugural blog award!

Thanks to everyone for participating. We’ll be back with a shiny new prompt next year!

We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Dr. Michael Verderame, Dr. Kirsteen Browning, Amanda White, and Jordan Gaines Lewis for judging the competition this year.

Phospholipase C Activation May not be Dopamine D1 Receptor Signaling

Blog Award

The following post is the third in our series of entries submitted for the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award. This piece is by Sang-Min Lee, a 5th year PhD candidate in Pharmacology.


Image credit: Bill Branson (Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of receptor-drug interaction has been the main mechanism for how drugs develop their clinical benefits. Drugs generally have target molecules and regulate their activity to make significant changes originated in cells.

My research field is the dopamine D1 receptor, and it has been a promising drug target because its activation has shown to improve the symptoms of at least two neurodisorders: motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and verbal working memory in schizotypal personality patients.

Nonetheless, more desirable D1 receptor activators are still required to maximize clinical efficacy and applications because the current D1 activators have several side effects and pharmacokinetic issues.

The Danger of “I’m so OCD!”

Blog Award

The following post is the second in our series of entries submitted for the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award. This piece is by Caitlin Millett, a 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program.

Image credit: Alan Levine (Flickr)

Image credit: Alan Levine (Flickr)

Have you ever heard a friend exclaim “I’m being so OCD right now!” when they can’t help but double check for their house keys before slamming the front door? It seems that this phrase has become a cultural colloquialism, it is used so often.

Luckily, most people who say “I am so OCD!” do not, in fact, have a debilitating anxiety disorder marked by uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and behavioral compulsions, the hallmark features of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Though the term obsessive-compulsive is often misattributed to those of us who are perhaps too meticulous, prone to anxiety, or a combination thereof, we as a society have familiarized ourselves with the term through our exposure to literature and media to the extent that it is now a part of our lexicon.

Exploring the Gene Myth

Blog Award

The following post is the first in our series of entries submitted for the 1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award. This piece is by Lina Jamis, a student in the Anatomy Graduate Program.

Image credit: FDA (Wikimedia Commons)

Image credit: FDA (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers who study genetic interactions—of which there are thousands currently under study and billions more to be studied—often find themselves trying to explain their field to non-technical audiences.

And if there’s anything I’ve learned as a student who has taken various levels of human genetics as an undergraduate and now at the graduate level, it’s that the average person has many preconceived notions about genetics that are mostly inaccurate, if not altogether wrong. These misconceptions are often perpetrated and perpetuated by our educational systems and media that aim to simplify a field that is intrinsically un-simple.

There are few absolute truths when it comes to human genetics. Absolutely, there are disease genes, but there are also modifiers of disease genes, and modifiers of modifiers of disease genes. It goes on. Incomplete penetrance, genetic heterogeneity, pleiotropy, and gene-environment interactions—these are just some of the factors that make studies of relatively simple-seeming genetic diseases extremely challenging.

1st Annual Lions Talk Science Blog Award: Accepting Submissions NOW!

Blog Award

blue-ribbonsSince launching last May, Lions Talk Science has published over 30 blog posts written and edited by a bevy of talented, diverse graduate students at Penn State College of Medicine.

The blog has been featured in a publication by the Association of American Medical Colleges, received thousands of page views, and has been widely shared with local and national high school and college educators as well as the Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research. Posts are enjoyed by both the lay and academic communities thanks to strong support from our Medical Center and College of Medicine social media team.

We are thrilled to announce our 1st Annual Blog Award, and we’re accepting submissions now! Whether you’ve written for the blog a dozen times or have yet to contribute, we want to read about your work!

The details:

  • Your blog post must adhere to this prompt: “Discuss a common layperson’s misconception related to your field of study, and set the record straight.”
  • The target audience for your blog should be the local Hershey community; assume a high school education or less, and keep the piece a reasonable length (400-600 words).
  • Submissions are due two weeks from today (Monday, June 30). Please e-mail your entries in Word format to Lions-Talk-Science@psu.edu with the subject line “Blog Award Submission.” If you have not previously submitted to the blog, please also include an image of yourself and a short bio for our Contributors page.

typing-on-laptop2Prizes and certificates will be awarded to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners in the amount of $50, $25, or $10 to the Penn State bookstore or Starbucks (your choice!).

Our panel of judges includes:

  1. Dr. Michael Verderame, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies
  2. Dr. Kirsteen Browning, Assistant Professor of Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  3. Jordan Gaines Lewis, 3rd-year graduate student and Lions Talk Science Editor-in-Chief
  4. Amanda White, Penn State alum and research tech

Please contact Lions-Talk-Science@psu.edu with any questions. Note: at this time, the contest is only open to Penn State College of Medicine students.

Happy writing!