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USM Narratives - Biotechnology

Immune Cell Development

The immune system plays a critical role in defending our bodies against harmful germs and toxins. In autoimmunity, the immune system turns its attention to our own cells and tissues, and leads to debilitating diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or autoimmune diabetes. Dr. Stephen C. Pelsue, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Medical Sciences, studies the Ttc7 gene and its role in the development and regulation of the immune system. When this gene is mutated in mice, it results in the development of autoimmunity similar to human lupus. We have recently discovered that Ttc7 interacts with other proteins to modify the cell membrane. Understanding this process will help to develop better diagnosis and treatment for autoimmunity and possibly cancer.

The Role of Osteopontin in Cancer: USM’s Department of Applied Medical Sciences

According to the estimates by American Cancer Society (ACS), in 2014 more than 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S., and more than half a million cancer deaths will occur in the country. The ACS report clearly demonstrates the urgent need for better understanding of cancer biology and development of new procedures for cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Toward these ends, USM has been interested in studying cancer progression, developing assays for cancer diagnosis and producing therapeutics for cancer treatment.

Human osteopontin (OPN) is a secreted protein of different variant forms that plays critical roles in tumor development and progression. The level of OPN is highly elevated in many types of cancers, including breast, prostate and liver cancers, making the protein a potential marker (signature) molecule that could be used as a target molecule for both cancer detection and treatment. In collaboration with Maine Medical Center and Maine Biotechnological Services, our laboratory has used OPN gene knock-out mice to produce a series of monoclonal antibodies specific individually for different regions (domains) of human OPN. This battery of OPN antibodies have been valuable in investigating the significance of different domains of OPN in cancer progression and metastasis. They have also been used in developing sensitive immune-assays for OPN measurement in breast cancer diagnosis.

Depleted Uranium and Lung Cancer

USM’s Dr. John Wise is studying the toxicity of depleted uranium (DU) on human lung cells. Due to its high density and unique combustive properties, the U.S. military has been using DU in military applications since the early 1990s as kinetic penetrators, missile counterweights and tank armor. Upon ignition, DU oxidizes into fine particles, raising concerns of exposure to soldiers and civilians in close proximity to exploding DU munitions or DU-armored tanks. This project focuses on investigating how depleted uranium causes lung cancer, which will help protect Maine soldiers and veterans. By considering the molecular mechanisms of potent carcinogens, new pathways for chemotherapeutic intervention can be discovered and commercialized. Once we better understand this toxicity, we can identify new and better drug targets to better diagnose and treat lung cancer.

Arsenic and Bladder Cancer

University of Southern Maine’s Dr. Wise is evaluating the toxicity of arsenic on human bladder cells. Maine has the second highest bladder cancer mortality rate in the country. High levels of arsenic in Maine well water have been implicated as the causal factor for the elevated bladder cancer risk observed in the state. But, how arsenic causes bladder cancer remains unknown. This project focuses on investigating the potential mechanisms involved in arsenic-induced bladder cancer, which will help protect the health of Maine citizens. By considering the molecular mechanisms of potent carcinogens, new pathways for chemotherapeutic intervention can be discovered and commercialized. Once they better understand this toxicity, researchers in the Wise laboratory can identify new and better drug targets to better diagnose and treat bladder cancer.

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Contact Information

Maine Economic Improvement Fund
5717 Corbett Hall
Orono, ME 04469
Phone: 207.581.2201 | Fax: 207.581.1479E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System