Research Department: Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research (Cancer Biology) Graduation Date: May 2019
Abstract: Axl is a cell surface receptor tyrosine kinase belonging to the TAM (Tyro3, Axl, MerTK) family of protein kinases which is often expressed at high levels in cancer cells. In cancer, Axl functions to promote tumor cell survival, reduce immune surveillance, and enhance metastasis through participation in maintaining a mesenchymal phenotype of tumor cells that have undergone Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition (EMT). In this study, we focused on the role Axl plays in EMT in the context of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). In both in vitro and in vivo studies, Axl positive cells proved to be more migratory and aggressive than the knockout cells; the positive cells also up-regulated mesenchymal markers, Vimentin and Slug, and down-regulated the common epithelial marker E-cadherin. In vivo, Axl knockout mice also showed an increased survival time and decreased tumor size when compared to wild type KIC mice. Axl supports the mesenchymal phenotype within the EMT cellular program, leading to an increased incidence of metastasis and a decreased life expectancy for patients with pancreatic cancer.
What does research mean to you? In my time working and learning in the Brekken lab, I have come to appreciate how significant research is in the fight against cancer. Although the day to day is hard and sometimes frustrating, the excitement of even the small discoveries and successes makes you feel like you are doing something significant. Although an individual's contribution to the knowledge bank may be small, it will all build to hopefully find the next big breakthrough.
Tell us about your journey. My journey to this point began when my father passed away of pancreatic cancer; he inspired me in so many ways, and his death made me want to have some small role in making sure no one else had to suffer the way he did. It propelled me back to school in order set me on this path toward a biomedical research career and hopefully a PhD at a prestigious institution like UT Southwestern.
Advice for Future Green Fellows
The days are long, and the learning curve is steep, but enjoy the time you have in the lab. The Green Fellowship has been a rare opportunity to not only gain so much knowledge and skill in the lab but also to see what it would be like to be a full time grad student in this field. If you have downtime, find something to do! The other lab members are happy to have you help them out with whatever they are working on and to share new techniques. You'll learn so much more.