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Keene State College gets funding to further biology research

Union Leader Correspondent

December 15. 2014 9:13PM
Keene State College assistant professor of biology Jason Pellettieri in his biology lab Friday, where the study of freshwater flatworms known as planarians could lead to discoveries in the treatment of melanoma. (MEGHAN PIERCE)

KEENE — An interesting find by a group of non-science majors in an introductory biology class at Keene State College has led the college’s biology department to tackle research that could lead to advancements in the treatment of skin cancer.

Leading the research is Keene State College assistant professor of biology Jason Pellettieri, who emphasizes that he and his team of researchers are not curing cancer, but making basic scientific finds that could lay the foundation for other discoveries.

The more than half a million dollars in grant money now funding the research, indicates the world of science is taking notice and seeing the relevance to the research, Pellettieri said.

The three highly competitive and prestigious grants — a NH-INBRE grant, a National Institutes of Health R15 grant and the National Science Foundation’s Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research — are intended to promote and support potentially transformative research.

It all started a few years ago in Pellettieri’s Stem Cells and Regeneration class. It is an introductory class for non-science majors — all the more reason to promote hands on research and learning through original discovery-based lab projects, he said.

“I love research … I see it as a really great way to educate students.”

“(These students) are there because it’s checking a box for them and getting them to their degree,” Pellettieri said. “So my main goal is really making biology interesting and accessible for non-majors. That’s really the ultimate goal of the course. … It’s not the typical cookbook-style lab where you have a pre-determined outcome and follow directions and you are going to get a known result. This is ‘I don’t know what you’re going to get.’ This is original research. The project might fail it often does. … Or you might get something really interesting and that was the case with this project.”

What Pellettieri asks these non-science majors is to study the regenerative process in freshwater flatworms known as planarians by conducting an experiment with the worms.

“Their claim to fame is that they have this amazing ability to regenerate lost body parts,” Pellettieri said of the planarians. The aquatic worms have a sophisticated and complex anatomy, he said. “You can even take one of these and cut it into 100 pieces and almost without exception each of those pieces will regenerate a complete new animal. … Sounds like science fiction, but it’s real.”

A typical research project involves adding something to the water these animals are living in, such as Red Bull.

Then the students make observances. But one group decided to take the planarians out of their cool, dark habitat they prefer in the wild, and that is recreated in the lab, and left their aquatic worms out in direct sunlight.

“Normally, they are dark brown and the sunlight-exposed animals had lost all of their pigmentation,” Pellettieri said. “I was really excited. It was completely unexpected.”

Though exciting, the find went nowhere until continuing education student Brad Stubenhaus showed up at Pellettieri’s door looking for a research opportunity in the biology lab.

Since Stubenhaus has a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from Ithaca College and hadn’t studied biology since he was in high school, Pellettieri handed him the pigmentation puzzle to get his feet wet.

It was a curiosity, but no one really knew what to do with it, Stubenhaus said. The department’s focus was on regenerative biology not pigmentation cells, he said.

“Worms turning white was, ‘That’s weird,’ but no one really cared,” Stubenhaus said.

Stubenhaus took the initial observance and ran with it, Pellettieri said.

“We started asking questions and these things kind of take on a life of their own,” Pellettieri said. “How does visible light damage pigment cells? … There is growing data that visible light probably does cause damage to human pigments cells,” and it is believed that planarian pigment cells are very similar to human pigment cells.

With the help of the grant money, Pellettieri now has a team of researchers — including Stubenhaus as a full-time paid researcher, many undergraduates and other volunteers including Monadnock Regional High School students — exploring two questions: “How does the visible light kill the cells?” and “How do those dead or dying cells get removed?”

From worms, fruit flies, yeast and bacteria, basic science discoveries about these animals in the lab have often lead to larger biomedical breakthroughs that lead to new drugs and treatments of diseases in humans, Pellettieri said.


“A lot of times what you learn in the simple lab animal … turns out to be relevant,” he said. “What we find does not have direct clinical relevance. … We are not curing cancer. …This is not going to cure melanoma in and of itself, but it is going to give us insight into how does visible light impact pigment cells that are like human melanocytes.”

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