Brittany Barreto ’13 is using new chemical compounds to fight cancer in Drew’s labs.

Biology major Brittany Barreto ’13 is working with Dr. Bimalendu DasMahapatra, a fellow at Drew University’s Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE), to test variations of a novel compound developed in Drew’s labs that hold remarkable promise in treating a wide range of cancers.

Barreto and DasMahapatra explain that every strand of DNA is protected by a protein known as p53, which prevents the onset of diseases like cancer by putting a stop to cellular mutations. But sometimes, they say, p53 itself can be mutated, rendering it unable to regulate healthy cell reproduction. That’s when conditions are ideal for the growth of a malignant tumor.

Barreto’s research project, which will also serve as her thesis for Drew’s Baldwin Honors program, involves testing variations of a novel compound developed on campus by Dr. Ronald Doll, a RISE fellow, and his team of student-researchers. These compounds are designed to attach themselves to damaged p53 and heal the protein, allowing it to resume its role as the “guardian of the genome.”

“I grow breast, colon and lung cancer cells,” Barreto says. “I maintain them, I feed them—and then I try to kill them.”

DasMahapatra says Barreto has tested more than a dozen variations of Doll’s novel compound and found that some of them do repair p53 as they were engineered to do. Moving forward, DasMahapatra has plans to use Barreto’s results in his effort to increase the potency of the most promising variants of the compound.

According to the findings of a study published in 1997 by molecular biologist Dr. Arnold Levine, p53 mutations were found in 50 percent of reported cancer cases, meaning the research in Drew’s labs could yield a promising new treatment option for half the incidences of cancer worldwide.

The potential for this research has attracted the attention of the American Chemical Society, which has invited Barreto, DasMahapatra and Doll—along with student-scientists Randa Barsoom ’14, David King ’15, Joseph Lee ’13, Megan McAleavy ’13, Greg Nalesnik ’14 and Runi Patel ’14—to present their findings to some of the nation’s leading researchers at an exclusive poster session on August 22 in Philadelphia.

“The application process for the poster session was super competitive,” Barreto says. “We had to prove that our research is very important, which we did by submitting data and publications that showed the healing potential of our work.”–Michael Bressman