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Behind the prescription

UofSC student pharmacists conducting drug development research

As a freshman pre-pharmacy student, Chuck Hennes was eager to feed his interest in research with hands-on lab experience.

After emailing dozens of professors requesting to volunteer in their labs, the Seneca native received only polite declines or referrals to other faculty members.

But when he appeared unannounced on the doorstep of Eugenia Broude, assistant professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences at the College of Pharmacy, she was persuaded by his motivation and knowledge about her lab’s work. He was in.

“I just kept coming back and volunteering every day and eventually became somewhat useful,” the first-year Pharm.D. student at the College of Pharmacy explained.

Hennes and fourth-year Pharm.D. student Paul Philavong are two of a number of undergraduate and Pharm.D. students that Broude and her colleagues at the college’s SmartState Center for Translational Cancer Therapeutics have nurtured, creating rare opportunities for non-graduate-level students to make meaningful research contributions. The pair has stood out because of their keen interest and dedication to the lab.

“They both have an incredible work ethic,” said Martina McDermott, the Susan G. Komen postdoctoral research fellow who supervises them along with Broude. “I was surprised at how many hours they were willing to put in. They got really involved in the work and wanted to know why results happened and what we would do going forward.”

With support from the lab, Philavong was awarded a $5,000 Gateway to Research scholarship from the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Excellence, given to students nationally to support student research participation and ultimately improve their clinical skills. It’s the second national honor he has received during his pharmacy education. In 2016, Philavong and fourth-year student Ja’Neisha Williams earned second place at the 2016 Student National Pharmaceutical Association/Kroger National Clinical Skills Competition.

In her nomination, Broude praised Philavong’s persistence in conducting research and his thoughtful analysis.

“He displays a lot of strength and diligence in his work and studies, which will help him to be successful in the Pharm.D. program and in anything he sets his mind to later in his life,” she wrote.

In discussing data and preparing his manuscript, she stated that “he demonstrated exceptional ability to see a ‘big picture’ and at the same time to hone in the intricate details of the signal transduction pathways that we are investigating. His questions were always very original and answers were to the point, the quality that is very rare for such a young investigator.”

Philavong earned a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and said his interest in research laboratories has never waned.

“I wanted to experience benchside work,” he said. “In pharmacy school, you do the counseling, the dispensing and the hospital interventions, but you don’t get to see what goes on in the drug development phase. It was a good experience for me to be able to learn about that process because when you’re reading a study about the drugs and drug development, it’s important to understand what that really means.”

The AFPE scholarship partially funded Philavong’s travel to present research posters at two American Society of Health-System Pharmacists’ annual meetings and a South Carolina Society of Health-System Pharmacists meeting, among other benefits.

Broude’s lab is testing the effectiveness of a drug that inhibits CDK8, an enzyme that cancer utilizes to become more malignant. The drug, Senexin B, was developed by SmartState endowed chair and professor Igor Roninson, who directs the Center for Translational Cancer Therapeutics and the Center for Targeted Therapeutics, which is funded by an $11.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program. Broude’s lab is funded in part by Roninson’s COBRE grant.

To support and Broude’s research, Philavong and Hennes conducted experiments exploring the synergy between Senexin B and existing targeted therapies, which frequently lose their effectiveness because cancer cells develop drug resistance. Based on Broude’s and McDermott’s previous studies with several breast cancer drugs, they tested whether other drugs, normally used for lung cancer, were more effective when used alone or in combination with Senexin B, finding that the dual therapy yielded better results.

By working with Broude’s team, the students have learned a variety of laboratory skills, such as cleaning and sterilizing equipment, completing microscopy analysis, growing human cancer cells in Petri dishes, conducting polymerase chain reactions to measure gene expression and performing various assays, such as MTT assays to examine cell growth and Bradford assays to evaluate cellular protein responses to drugs. Lab staff members were accessible and enthusiastic to share their expertise, Philavong said.

“The (research) techniques I learned about in my undergrad classes, I get to see how they really work,” Hennes said. “I see what really goes into research and how challenging it can be. I learned everybody makes mistakes and you just try to learn from them.”

Beyond picking up advanced technical skills, the lab experience has given him a different perspective about the therapies discussed in the pharmacy curriculum and opened his eyes to the potential for a research career with his degree.

“I didn’t realize you could have a pharmacy degree and do research,” Hennes said. “I’m trying to work (in the lab) throughout my whole pharmacy career here. I’m still really interested in oncology.”

Philavong envisions a career as a hybrid pharmacist who participates in drug development and patient care, providing a valuable link between the two disciplines that can accelerate drug delivery to patients. He is applying for hospital residency programs and eagerly awaiting Match Day in March.

Dean Stephen Cutler said the college was pleased to offer research opportunities for talented undergraduate and Pharm.D. students.

“Because of the strength of the Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences, our college can provide learning experiences for students that afford them a unique 360-degree perspective of the field of pharmacy,” he said. “Those experiences will help them to be more knowledgeable practitioners in whatever practice setting they pursue after graduation.

“The college is pleased that Dr. Broude is able to leverage use of NIH-NIGMS IDeA funds in support of the Gateway Award from AFPE. This synergy advances the IDeA program’s mission.”