This summer, I was fortunate enough to continue my research through the American Physiological Society Undergraduate Research Excellence Fellowship (APS UGREF). Their support, along with that of my mentors, has allowed for a unique and interesting project to progress- the investigation of high-dose vitamin C and hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) for cancer treatment. While the mention of vitamin C for cancer may invite skepticism, the literature teems with evidence that supports additional research exploring vitamin C as a supportive piece of an integrative cancer treatment plan. Fascinatingly, vitamin C can affect the body differently when taken as a supplement (orally) versus administered clinically (intravenously). When given intravenously, vitamin C can actually act as a “pro-oxidant” in cancerous tissue, meaning that it can increase levels of highly reactive oxygen-containing molecules that can stress and sometimes kill cancer cells. Interestingly, with vitamin C, this pro-oxidative effect does not appear to take place in normal cells, making it likely safe for patients that are suitable candidates. HBOT, a medical treatment for severe wounds and other health ailments, delivers 100% oxygen at elevated pressure, suggesting that it may increase the pro-oxidative, anti-cancer effects of vitamin C. So far, we have seen compelling results in isolated mouse brain cancer cells, particularly that high concentrations of vitamin C (> 0.5 millimolar) kill ~80% of cells after 24 hours of treatment and decrease their growth, and that HBOT can enhance these anti-cancer effects. We are also in the process of running additional studies to better understand how these therapies work in combination (i.e. quantifying oxidative stress, studying expression of proteins relevant to cancer), with the ultimate goal to potentially improve patient care.
While concurrently working on my honors thesis, I also had the opportunity to assist with data collection for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 22 on which my mentor, Dr. D’Agostino, was a crewmember. On this mission, crewmembers live ~60 feet underwater as “aquanauts” at the world’s only undersea laboratory, Aquarius. The goal of NEEMO is to simulate a space flight mission, simultaneously allowing researchers to study the effects of saturation on human physiology. Saturation refers to the aquanauts’ tissues being saturated with nitrogen at a pressure 2.5 times greater than the atmospheric pressure of air at sea level. Before they can return to the surface after the mission, the aquanauts must “decompress” for about 17 hours, where the habitat is gradually depressurized and the crew breathes 100% oxygen for about an hour in total; the latter process is similar to what my cancer cells go through when I put them in a hyperbaric chamber! Our research group looked at the effects of chronic saturation on body composition, autonomic function/dysfunction (heart rate variability and sleep), the gut microbiome (genetic makeup of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract), and cognition/sensory motor function. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the future of space exploration, research the effects of extreme environments on human health, interact with astronauts, and to work with such a brilliant team of individuals.
It’s really incredible to think of how science has positively impacted my life; growing up, I never imagined myself working in a research lab, let alone becoming a scientist. After having the opportunity to immerse myself into the scientific research culture, however, I do not know if any other path would have been as gratifying and intellectually stimulating. It has been enlightening to see the level of dedication and knowledge required of scientists to run a lab, design experiments, analyze data, and translate scientific discoveries to improve the lives of others. Performing research in a lab requires a great deal of patience and perseverance; as a scientist, one must accept the fact that failures are inevitable, but that each setback may illuminate new pathways and discoveries that would have otherwise remained hidden. I am constantly challenged in the lab, always learning new techniques and understanding that methods, theories, and questions are constantly evolving. I continue to find literature that influences my perspective and approach to research and have great appreciation for the guidance I’ve received on my journey, as well as for the techniques available to decipher our most deep-rooted inquiries. Whether counting cells under a microscope or “diving” cells in a hyperbaric chamber, I am grateful for all the amazing experiences, mentorship, support, and insight research has given me, and hope that other students have similar opportunities to unveil their passions and learn more about the world.
- NEEMO 16: Traversing with Coral [Online]. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/660151main_coral-traverse_full_0.j