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Young scientist hunts cancer 'culprits' at HCC

December 18, 2008|By ARNOLD PLATOU

She is a scientific sleuth in pursuit of a killer.

Specifically, Meena Chandok is hunting the earliest signals that human blood cells give one another when they begin mutating into what she calls cancer "culprits."

"What we're trying to detect is when the earliest communications occur, at the point of conception of the disease," Chandok said.

"Achieving that could dramatically increase a person's chance of survival," she said.

Since May, the 42-year-old Chandok has done her research in a 17-foot-by-18-foot lab she rents at the Technical Innovation Center at Hagerstown Community College.

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At least three days a week, she drives here from her home near Annapolis, working sometimes from morning until midnight bent over petri dishes, testing blood samples.

Chandok is the only employee of Ambay Immune Sensors and Controls, a biotech company she launched this year, nine years after immigrating to the United States from India.

Taking it personally

The daughter of a train engineer, Chandok earned a doctorate in biochemistry in India and won a young scientist award to do her own research in plant sciences.

"I was using light as a signal affecting the growth, photosynthesis and germination of seeds to understand the language of how cells communicate with one another," she said.

She was awarded a Humboldt international scholarship to continue the research in Germany, working there before moving to the United States to do more plant study at Iowa State University.

While there, she received the news from back home that was to change the direction of her life's work.

"When I came to Iowa, my dad got lung cancer. He never smoked, never drank. He was not ever remotely close to any of those things," Chandok said.

Her father died within months.

"That's the problem with lung cancer. It escapes detection until it's too late. ... So that's the motivation for me to use my expertise and see if I can develop something, because I know how it feels when you lose your own loving one."

Next, she went to Cornell University in New York, where she continued studying plants. She focused on how they defend themselves against pathogens - bacteria, viruses or parasites that can cause disease.

It fascinated her.

"Like our language of A, B, C, cells have a lot of molecules which are communicators," Chandok said. "...If plant cells are attacked by a pathogen, they develop a defense. If a plant has an infection which shows up as a spot on a leaf, the plant cell and pathogen cell will both be trying to communicate."

Then, if the invader can't be defeated, "the plant tries to shut off that leaf rather than let it affect the whole plant, which is an ability we humans don't have," she said. "If a finger becomes injured, we (our bodies) don't cut it off."

After getting married, Chandok went to the University of Maryland at Baltimore and continued her research.

She began studying cells in the blood of mice and humans, trying to understand communications among so-called memory cells.

These are the cells our bodies create after being sick. These cells "remember" how they reacted and what happened, so that if the illness returns, the body can fight it more effectively, Chandok said.

"Understanding the generation and maintenance of immune memory in the system is important to generate new vaccines against diseases such as polio, the flu and HIV to provide that protective capacity to the organism," she said.

A big step

Last fall, after Chandok finished her project at the University of Maryland, she decided to go out on her own.

"Sometimes, you are convinced of what you want to do, but it's very hard to convince other people. So the only way you can do it is to take a step forward and go and try it," she said.

At first, she looked for a lab to rent near Washington, D.C., or in Baltimore, but they were too expensive, she said.

A friend, whose sensor technology company rents space elsewhere in HCC's innovation center, recommended Chandok come here.

"That worked out pretty good," she said. Not only did she like center manager Chris Marschner's approach, but the center provided financial help for some of her legal expenses, she said.

"So, I think that was plus points for coming to Washington County," she said.

Tracking the 'culprit'

Now, she tests cancer patients' blood samples that she obtains from commercial suppliers, and uses laser-based techniques to identify the molecules that participate in early cellular communications.

She is looking for what she calls the "culprit" - whatever causes normal cells to become cancerous.

"The next step is to change these culprits. We are trying to develop very early culprits ... when the nice guy is turning into the culprit, the nice guy is becoming the bad guy," she said, laughing at her description.

For now, she is targeting breast cancer. "It starts with one culprit. Pretty soon, more join in, like forming a gang," she said. As long as the "good guys" are able to fight off the bad ones, there's no cancer.

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