Dr. Annelise Nguyen

Expert Exchange

Breast Cancer Research Starts With a Single Cell

Breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in women according to the CDC. Breast cancer research starts at the single cell level because each tumor is made up billions of cells that vary from one another. Studying single cells has enabled scientists, such as Dr. Annelise Nguyen, to understand the role of cell–to–cell communication and its effect on breast cancer progression.

Dr. Nguyen’s research at Kansas State University is focused on cell communications between breast cancer cells. Cell communication is the exchange of ions and small molecules through many different channels, but of particular interest to Dr. Nguyen are gap junctions. In breast cancer cells, gap junction communication is lost and signal molecules no longer move from one cell to the next. Cells need to communicate to remain balanced, but loss of healthy communication drives cancer formation and progression. “The ultimate goal in our work is to design a mechanism to stop the loss of cell communication,” Dr. Nguyen said. She is working to restore cell communications and reprogram them to communicate with each other the same way as normal cells.

Dr. Nguyen’s research team collaborated with chemists to create a novel tool that synthesizes a small molecule to keep channels open and restore cell communications. She patented this tool to provide basic researchers the opportunity to use this when restoring the gap junction channels.  “This is quite exciting for us, because not only is this an anti-cancer drug, but it’s a tool for basic researchers to reopen gap junction channels,” said Dr. Nguyen. Another application for this tool is delivering drugs directly into a diseased cell that normally would not be susceptible to direct insertion methods. “In using the gap junction enhancer in combination with other anti-cancer drugs, we are able to reduce the toxicity of those drugs, and we saw the same positive effect,” said Dr. Nguyen.

Her research has led to the development of an innovative compound capable of stopping tumor formation and enhancing the success of current cancer treatments.

Her contributions to the scientific community, however, do not stop with her biomedical research. Nguyen is also inspiring elementary through college-aged students to think creatively and to pursue careers in science. She is an advocate of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) education. “I think STEAM is very important in our field, especially in biomedical research where you need creativity and basic science to drive innovation,” says Nguyen. “Art in the sciences is creatively using science as a part of art, and art as a part of science.”

Nguyen’s interest in merging creativity with science and inspiring young scientists extends into her research at Kansas State University. Because her research can be applied to pharmaceutical, medical, and basic science research fields, Nguyen’s lab is frequented by a variety of undergraduate students interested in assisting with her research process. Contrary to traditional biomedical basic science research labs, undergraduate student researchers in Nguyen’s lab pursue their own projects based on Nguyen’s work. By giving students the opportunity to formulate their own questions through an independent research project, Nguyen is encouraging students to think both creatively and scientifically and is inspiring them to continue pursuing a career in the sciences.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a post-doctoral fellow, a graduate student, or a freshman undergraduate student,” Nguyen says. “Everyone has their own, independent project that’s driving creativity and empowering individuals to do greater things than shadowing a doctor or an upperclassman… Every individual has their own desire and motivation to contribute to the gap of biomedical research.”