Lawrenceville Partners with Stanford to Cure Pancreatic Diseases

Pancreatic diseases can be devastating, but Lawrenceville students have partnered with researchers at Stanford University to help improve the odds. Last spring, Lawrentians in the School’s Molecular Biology class had the rare opportunity to work with Stanford University professor Seung K. Kim in his lab’s pioneering research. This data could ultimately lead to better treatment—and possible cures—for pancreatic diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer. But how?

With Drosophila—a species of fruit fly. Actually, millions of them, all living in Kirby Science and Math Center Room 1007.

We share a surprising number of genetic similarities with Drosophila—enough to make them excellent test subjects to study human diseases. “They are easy to breed and related enough to us for the research to be relevant and to fuel further endeavors,” said Melanie Fong ‘19, a Molecular Biology course student, who will be studying at the University of Chicago starting in September.

The first Drosophila flies arrived from Kim’s lab in August of 2018, and Lawrentians began their studies to “potentially better understand what genes are expressed where and when in the flies,” according to Science Master Nicole Lantz, who teaches the year-long Molecular Biology course. She spent a year developing the course’s curriculum with her partners at Stanford, which included training at the Seung Kim lab at Stanford, and writing a textbook specific to the course content. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Fox (Director of Student Research), who teaches the course alongside Lantz, spent the year updating the Lawrenceville lab facilities to create at state of the art fly lab that can support the course’s work.

Lantz explained that, like flies, humans have a massive genome and thousands of genes, differentially expressed in specialized cells. “What we’re doing is creating novel lines of transgenic fruit flies that can be used as tools in the process of identifying pieces of DNA that control the expression pattern of certain genes, then identifying when and where in the fly those pieces are active,” she said.

With that goal—and microscopes donated by Trustee Emeritus Glenn H. Hutchins ‘73—students manipulated small pieces of DNA in the fly to hopefully to see what their role is in cells that produce insulin in Drosophila. The fly doesn’t have a pancreas, but understanding the development and life cycle of those insulin-producing cells allows researchers to hypothesize what’s going on in the human pancreas without doing any work on a human.

Harvard-bound Jillian Medina ‘19  said the research gave her “a sense of purpose because it applies to real life,” adding, “We’re actually helping with [real] research … and maybe help the people at Stanford will find something interesting that can help actual human beings.”

 Lucy Gutman ‘19, who will attend Princeton in the fall, offered that, “Everything we’ve done has felt outside of the normal spectrum of a high school class or any of the other classes you’ve taken. In [many] introductory molecular genetics college classes, [students] learn a lot of the things we’ve already studied. So, we’ll have a leg up and be able to do research with a really big wealth of knowledge, which is pretty rare for our peers.”

Medina agreed, stating, “I’ll be able to go up to a professor in my freshman year and say, ‘I’d love to work in your lab. I have X, Y, and Z experience because I’ve already been a molecular genetics lab and I’m confident in my ability to do these things and help you out.”

The girls agreed that doing the work for Stanford gave them a greater sense of purpose and responsibility because, as Medina said, “[Our research] applies to real life. . . . Maybe the people at Stanford could find something interesting [in our work] that can help actual human beings.”
The research reaches beyond Stanford; these unique flies are the progenitors of new lineages of Drosophila. They will be shared withIndiana University-Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center, where scientists from around the world can use them for additional research. Lawrentians have created at least five different lines which, Lantz said, “is pretty incredible and beyond our expectations for this year.”

“Doing real research is incredibly empowering for students,” said Lantz. “Students are getting a taste of doing work that really matters. Our work is not like a cookie-cutter lab demo, where everyone gets the same, expected result. Sometimes we try things and they fail. Sometimes, we get very unexpected results. It can be frustrating for the students at times, but that’s ok. You need to learn how to deal with that. That is life in a research lab.”

Medina concurred. “You are going to have a DNA extraction that is contaminated or a fly line that is supposed to have all red eyes but, for some reason, has white eyes. You have to work with people in the class to overcome those issues because not everything is going to happen on the first try,” she said.

Fong added, “I don’t think I ever personally felt discouraged because the class was so supportive. When someone messed up, it was ‘OK, we got this. We’re going to work on it together.’”

Research will resume when new Molecular Biology students begin their work in September. There will now be two sections of the course offered to accommodate its popularity.

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.
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Through House and Harkness, Lawrenceville challenges a diverse community of promising young people to lead lives of learning, integrity, and high purpose.  Our mission is to inspire the best in each to seek the best for all.