Tackling Cancer Treatment Resistance

Amanda Delfino
April 4, 2024
Pace University's Biology Professor Nancy Krucher standing on the steps in front of Dyson Hall with students Michael Feretti and Anastasiia Vaska who assisted in cancer treatment resistance research

Professor of Biology Nancy Krucher, PhD, has been involved in cancer research for nearly 30 years—a passion that began when she was an undergraduate student immersed in a lab environment for the first time.

Now, her mission is to provide that same experience for her undergraduate students on the Pleasantville campus.

“Honestly, it's the best part of my job,” said Krucher, who’s been working with students in the state-of-the-art lab since she joined Pace 25 years ago. “I was an undergraduate and worked in a lab, and that changed my life and I decided to become a scientist. It’s important for me to bring the students in and get them excited about science and research.”

Last year, Krucher received a three-year, $400k grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study alternative methods to combat cancer cells’ development of resistance to targeted treatments, focusing specifically on breast cancer and melanoma cells.

“Many treatments in cancer will work on a patient for a few years and then the treatment stops working—that's called resistance,” said Krucher. “So, I developed an idea of how we could reverse that resistance. My team has been working on melanoma and this particular drug that we think is going to be very interesting as a possible melanoma treatment.”

Pace University's Biology student Anastasiia Vaska working in lab

This year, biology students Michael Ferretti ’24 and Anastasiia Vaska ’24 have joined Krucher in her pursuit, working with 3D models of melanoma cells—because they’re more physiologically accurate as to how tumors behave in a live patient—and studying the cells’ reaction to the drug.

Within the cells, the group is studying the expression of various proteins that can contribute to cancer growth. They’re working to determine the correlation between the expression of the proteins and programmed cell death (the death of a cell due to processes within the cell) to understand the mechanisms in which this drug could successfully kill cancer cells.

Understanding these processes can lead to better combination cancer treatments—treatment through more than one drug—Krucher said. “Combination treatments have higher efficacy and lower system toxicity, meaning patients have fewer side effects and tend to respond to the treatment longer.”

For Vaska, in particular, working on this significant project has opened a new world. “I'm from Ukraine, where we don't really have a lab component to the vast majority of our classes,” she said. “I'd never even seen a microscope back home. When I first heard about doing experiments in the lab, I thought, ‘Wow, I could I really get my hands on that.’ And now I do that 10 hours a week.”

Ferretti had also taken an interest in Krucher’s work, and, after enrolling in two of her courses and discussing her research together, was enthusiastic to join the project.

Pace University's Biology student Michael Ferretti doing research on a laptop

“I was a bit nervous when I first found out I was going to be working with 3D cancer cells,” said Ferretti, noting the fragility of the cells. “There are certain techniques you have to be proficient in, and not every experiment comes out the way you’d hoped. There’s a lot of trial-and-error involved, so when they come out well, it’s a very rewarding feeling.”

Krucher added, “Science is a lesson in persistence, and we learn that in the laboratory. It’s useful in all of life, really.”

Before Vaska graduates this spring, the group hopes to make significant progress on a paper for publication detailing their results. “We have reason to believe that this drug will eventually be developed by pharmaceutical companies,” said Krucher. “And we think it's important that they understand how the drug works. So we have a lot of data on that."

Vaska and Ferretti also recently presented their work at Pace University’s Society of Fellows Annual Meeting, a research conference held by Dyson College’s premier honor society.

“I'm very happy with how we've overcome the challenges and just how well we work together as a team,” said Ferretti. “Everybody is really excited about our research, and nobody is holding anyone back. We're all pushing each other forward to keep getting good data.”